French author Georges Simenon one of the most prolific and unique novelists of the last century. His work still resonates in this one, weaving together the worlds of both popular and literary fiction.
His total output is hard to pin down, but he was said to write up to 60 to 80 pages a day. Of his hundreds of novels and short stories, a mere 75 of them feature his legendary commissaire Jules Maigret.
His books are almost all short. They seem a bit rushed, rolled into the typewriter, typed up and then rolled out to make room for the next. At their best, they’re marked by fine plotting, unique concepts and striking pointed details in setting and insights into the tangled minds and manners of the criminal class and those caught in its web. They’re much more than crime novels. For William Faulkner, Simenon reminded him of Anton Chekov, naturalistic portrayals of closed worlds bound by habit and fear, with always with a corpse or two about.
Of the many crime novels Simenon wrote sans Maigret, two have recently spent time with me in the easy chair. One, The Blue Room (1964), is a grimy and brilliant variation on James M. Cain. Set in the early 1960s in a dreary provincial French village, it’s a sly weave of flashbacks told through the eyes of Tony, a small businessman who attempts to end his affair with Andree, a woman whose husband runs a candy shop.
Attempt is all he can do, because, unbeknownst to Tony, Andree has no intention of calling things off. Tony soon finds himself steeped in poisonous murder and in the clutches of both Andree and the law.
It’s a creepy and compelling book, frank in its sexuality and muddy with verisimilitude and the oppressive ambiance of everyday life in a small village where the more the sordid the secret harder it is to hide.
The Hatter’s Phantoms (1949) is a dark comedy from my least-favorite genre, the serial-killer tale. Here, Monsieur Labbé, the neighborhood hat maker in an unnamed Parisian arrondissement, commits a series of murders whose motives I won’t reveal, but whose motivation is surprising while being devoid of both Freudian twaddle and lazy sadism.
As he slays his victims and taunts police and public with boasting letters, mad hatter Labbé finds he's got a problem: He’s been found out. Luckily for him though, the man who knows, Kachoudas, the tailor across the street, is a poor, hapless immigrant and neighborhood laughing stock No would believe him, especially should he dare accuse such a fine French bourgeois as Monsieur Labbé.
No one is more aware of this than Kouchadas himself, who lives his life in a silent crouch, waiting for the next blow to fall, which it does. But when it does come, from a surprising if banal direction, Monsieur Labbé finds no relief.
The Hatter’s Phantom is a good novel that artfully portrays a gray world of closed lives and deep suspicion. The ending feels rushed out the typewriter, as I’ve seen in other Simenon novels, but the writing, here translated by Willard R. Trask, is both vivid and stark. It hums along in Simenon’s unique voice.
Thomas Burchfield is the author of Butchertown,a ripping, 1920s gangster thriller, which was praised as “incendiary” by David Corbett (The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday; The Art of Character)! His contemporary vampire novel Dragon's Arkwon the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil andDracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journaland The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.