My Favourite crime novels No. 25

Dirty Snow – Georges Simenon

Not done one of these in ages, probably because I’ve not had the time. But here’s a stone-cold classic to make up for it.

As many of my regular readers will know I love Georges Simenon. His novels are a lesson in how to tell a good tale as leanly and meanly as possible. He is most famous for the Maigret police detective books, which are much harder and darker than their reputation might lead you to believe, but his reputation as a writer has been made by his roman durs, which are noir in everything but name. They scour the gutter and focus on societies’ rejects or, on quite a few occasions, they focus on those who, for whatever reason, drop out and reject society. Redemption is rare, happy endings rarer still.

And Dirty Snow is probably the apotheosis of this art. In that it is probably the darkest and nastiest of these books. Which is really saying something. It focuses on France during the occupation, and offers up an existence of hunger, poverty, and constant fear for normal folks trying to live their lives during WWII

However, the protagonist of Dirty Snow, Frank Friedmeyer, isn’t one of the normal folks. He’s one of the nastiest pieces of shit you will find in any kind of fiction. At nineteen, he’s already a pimp, a thug, and, as the novel begins, he’s just committed his first murder – of a fat officer from the occupying forces. He doesn’t commit it because of hatred, he doesn’t commit it because of fear, he does it for no other reason than because he wants to, and because he feels that now is as good a time as any to do it. He takes the officer’s gun, again because he wants to. And later, when he arranges to steal some watches for a General – for a lot of cash and a much sought after green card (which allows him to go anywhere) – he uses the gun to shoot an old woman who has the misfortune to recognise him during the robbery.

His one chance at redemption is Sissy, who for some reason sees something that nobody else can and falls in love with Frank, but even this he messes up when he sees the opportunity to use her love to his advantage with his ‘friend Kromer. (I use quotation marks because both men dislike each other, they just hang around together due to criminal connections).

Then Frank is arrested, imprisoned, and tortured by the occupying forces. The same elements that make him so wrong for the outside world (his lack of fear, of empathy, his coldness, and distrust of others), give him an edge inside. He doesn’t inform, he doesn’t compromise, and – by looking out of his window at a woman in a building across from the prison – he finds a spark of humanity.

Dirty Snow is one of those rare books that’s as dark and destructive as a black hole. It sucks away all light, all hope, and pushes the reader face first into the dark snow that builds up in the gutters.

It is also beautifully written in lean prose that strips away all the excess fat to find the meat and bone of the story beneath. Dirty Snow doesn’t waste words or paragraphs on things the story doesn’t need, it uses them to build a dark world that pulses with life.

Simenon tells the tale without sentimentality, and never resorts to cliché. In fact, it’s rare to find a book of his that does resort to clichés (for instance, Maigret isn’t a tortured soul with addictions and no home life, he’s a happily married man who does his job with distinction, even when he doesn’t like it). It presents the world to us and says this is how it is. If you don’t like it, look away, but this is how things are.

Even now, it stands up as a hostile, dark masterpiece.

My Favourite Crime Novels 24

Maigret And The Idle Burglar by Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon’s critical reputation is based mostly on his Roman Durs (Dirty Snow, The Strangers in the House, The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By to name but a few), dark, bleak novels that aren’t afraid to leave the reader dazed and confused. Their endings are never happy and even the few faint glimmers of hope that briefly light up the lives of the main characters are extinguished at the end. Abandon all hope those who enter here seems to be the main theme of these dark, cold, beautiful masterpieces.

However, his success as a writer (hundreds of millions of books sold) is based on his Maigret novels. The detective walked the Paris streets for many years solving cases and drinking lots of beers and calvados. His method of solving cases was not by deductive reasoning or amazing genius but by observation and absorption. When he entered a room Maigret seemed to suck up the atmosphere and the relationships between the suspects like a sponge. He might not have had the brain power of Sherlock Holmes, but he was no slouch in the brain department and unlike Doyle’s creation he wasn’t an insufferable know-it-all (I know exactly who I’d rather sit with in a pub for a beer). Maigret was also happily married, not some loner with addictions and relationship problems (which is why he feels fresher than many of the cliched detectives who followed in his wake). However, the novels are not cosy, comfortable things. Whilst they may be a lot warmer than the Roman Durs they do share some of their darkness. None more so than Maigret and the Idle Burglar, which is up there with the Roman Durs in my opinion.

A burglar is found battered to death on a night in Paris. He was murdered, stripped of all ID and thrown from a car on to the icy street, yet his criminal background has Maigret’s superiors eager to dismiss it as an underworld thing and brush it away. They are more concerned with solving a high-profile case involving a gang of armed robbers. The thing is Maigret doesn’t quite buy the underworld vendetta angle and starts finding out a few things about the burglar and also the Parisian upper-classes, none of which are particularly to his liking.

The beauty of the novel, aside from Simenon’s awesome, tight, spare prose, is in how Simenon uses the novel to attack both the upper-classes, who disguise their feral, grasping nature behind money and pretensions, and an increasingly bureaucratic police force obsessed with solving big crimes and treating crime as figures. The other great beauty of this novel lies in the fact that Maigret solves both cases, though only one is ever solved to his satisfaction. The dark ending leaves Maigret knowing who the murderer of the burglar is but with no way of ever proving it. Of all the Maigret novels this one is my favourite – superb.

Review – The Engagement by Georges Simenon

Regular readers of this site will know that I love the work of Georges Simenon. I love the Maigret novels, which are harder and darker than their reputation might suggest, but I also love the Roman Durs, of which this novel is one. These novels are equally as dark and cold and mean as their American noir cousins.

The Engagement isn’t a Simenon that I had encountered before, but it’s definitely a high quality addition to his superb back catalogue; one that should appeal to both fans of his previous work and make a perfect introduction for new readers.

The Engagement is about Mr Hire, an overweight and slightly creepy man, who runs a legal, but hardly ethical, postal scam. Hire is a furtive and shy individual who keeps himself to himself, ensuring the suspicion of those who live and work in the block of flats where he resides. So when a prostitute is brutally murdered in the area all eyes are focussed on him. There are reasons for Hire’s odd behaviour but, because the police are brought in and nobody thinks enough of him to ask the reason why, they automatically assume that he is guilty. As the story progresses and the tension ratchets up to almost unbearable levels the reader is genuinely unsure what Hire’s fate will be.

For a writer who has been lauded for the ‘psychology’ in his novels, there is surprisingly little in The Engagement. Most of what goes on is rendered in clean, camera-eye prose that gives little insight into the psychology of the characters. And yet, Simenon’s brilliant word choices and descriptions give us all the information we need to know about the shy and reserved Hire, the conceited and unpleasant concierge and the other characters, mostly unpleasant, who populate this tale. Also, his effortless handling of the tension is a lesson to any writer who wants to know how to create a page-turner with minimal fuss, and without drawing attention to his writing. The Engagement is a superb read and comes  highly recommended to those who like their stories dark and diamond hard.

My all-time favourite crime fiction writers (in no particular order):

Georges Simenon: His most famous creation is the gruff, persistent and wonderfully likeable police detective Maigret – and for those novels alone his entrance into the crime fiction pantheon would be secure. But in addition to his Maigret mysteries (which are a lot less cosy than their reputation might lead you to believe), he also wrote some utterly brilliant noir fiction, or as he put it roman durs. Dirty Snow (aka The Stain in the Snow), The Strangers in the House and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By are utterly superb, cold-hearted fiction, and must have had an impact on that other great French crime novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette. His prose was tight, but densely layered, and his storytelling immaculate. He could tell a complex story in less than 150 pages and not leave the reader feeling in any way cheated – a skill most writers would kill for.

Jim Thompson: Despite what some people might think, Jim Thompson didn’t invent noir fiction, but he sure as hell mastered the art. Plenty of writers got in before Thompson (James M Cain, Cornell Woolrich and, only just, David Goodis, being among the main players) but, at his best, Thompson somehow made the style his own. His worldview was darker than Cain’s, his prose was sparer and his plots less ludicrous than those of Woolrich, and his range was wider than the very narrow territory that Goodis generally ploughed. His best novels are like a surge of amphetamine to the brain; providing the kind of rush that few other authors are capable of: The Getaway, The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters and Pop 1280 move so quickly that the bitter, haunting endings seem all the more potent, staying with you a lot longer than it takes to read them.

Raymond Chandler: Some of his plots can be a little scruffy (dead chauffeur, anybody?), but his best novels make you forget about all that. Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Goodbye are as good as anything you’ll find anywhere else in crime fiction, and Chandler created a character in Philip Marlowe who is as memorable as anything in any kind of fiction. Marlowe is the perfect blend of hard-boiled quips, bitter philosophy, toughness and compassion. When you add in the fact that Chandler wrote some of the best prose of the twentieth century and his style is still aped by crime fiction writers to this day, what you have is one of the most influential writers of all-time. Few writers can evoke a sense of place or personality the way Chandler could and even fewer had his facility with simile and metaphor. Whenever I’ve suffered a few bad books in a row, I pick up a Chandler again and remind myself just how it should be done.

Dashiell Hammett: A brilliant crime novelist who, along with Hemingway, pretty much put the Henry James school of flowery prose to bed for good. His clean, spare camera-eye prose and superb sense of pacing made him the best of his day, and he’s still among the greats to this day. His short stories, mostly featuring the Continental Op, are excellent but the novels, oh wow, the novels (with one exception) are brilliant: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key are among the greatest crime novels ever written with The Thin Man only a tad behind. The one duffer in his back catalogue The Dain Curse is still decent, but it doesn’t scale the same heights as the rest of his work. If you haven’t read any Hammett please do so immediately.

James Ellroy: He can often come across in interviews as a complete ballbag but there’s no doubting his brilliance. For the LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) alone he would be guaranteed immortality as a writer, but then he wrote the Underworld USA trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover). His short, punchy sentences (particularly in the later works) can take some getting used to, but his sense of pacing is among the best and there are few better writers of action around (try the prologue of Blood’s A Rover if you don’t believe me), added to which his ability to handle plot strands is unparallelled. His worldview is wonderfully grim and if you have the stomach for it I can’t recommend his novels highly enough. However, I have one caveat; his short stories are shit (as is his recent memoir The Hilliker Curse), so avoid those like the plague.

Elmore Leonard: Leonard is the reason I got into crime fiction in the first place, so his place on my list was always guaranteed. Few writers on the planet can write dialogue like this guy, and even fewer writers can make characters stand out with such spare descriptions – his harder than hard-boiled prose makes Hammett look as flowery as Henry James in comparison. The fact that Leonard makes it seem so simple is a testament to his brilliance; writing this spare can come off as childish in the wrong hands. He has written a few less than brilliant novels (especially recently), but novels like LaBrava, Stick, $WAG, Rum Punch and 52 Stick-Up are a good indication of just how good the crime genre can get.

Derek Raymond: It is only in recent years that Derek Raymond has received the credit that has been due to him for a long time – as one of the finest British writers of crime fiction ever. His ‘Factory’ novels (He Died With His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home On Leave, How The Dead Live and I Was Dora Suarez) are up there with the best of any  crime fiction, never mind the British stuff. The narrator is damaged, mostly by the murder of his child by his mentally ill wife and by the job itself, but at the beginning of the series has some hope for humanity, as the series winds on this hope turns to bitterness and open clashes with his superiors, some of which are hysterically funny (Raymond was a fine writer of dialogue). By the time the last novel came along, the notorious Dora Suarez, the narrator barely cares about anything but providing justice for the victim. Raymond’s prose was often superb, his musings on modern life were equally sound and few writers wrote pub scenes with half as much life as he does. He edges Ted Lewis as my favourite British crime writer by the thickness of a paperback page!

Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake): The early Stark novels are magnificent stuff. His hero, Parker, is low-life scum. and yet Stark manages the difficult task of making him seem likeable, of making him worthy of carrying an entire series of novels. The recent resurrection of Parker was less successful, in my humble opinion, because his rough edges and his nastiness appear to have been smoothed away ever so slightly, but the early novels are slam-bang entertainment which few other authors are even capable of. Once you pick up a Stark novel I defy you to try and put it down. And writing as Donald Westlake; well, the Dortmunder novels aren’t too shabby either!

Lawrence Block: Few writers are able to straddle the many branches of crime fiction the way that Block does. My personal faves are the brilliant Bernie Rhodenbarr series of novels (wonderful humorous crime creations each and every one of them) and the Matt Scudder series which, like Derek Raymond’s ‘Factory’ novels, charts the changes in the character as the series progresses. His novel Small Town is also a fine crime thriller and one of the few literary responses I can think of that directly deals with the effects of 9/11. A fantastic writer.

There are plenty of other crime fiction writers who I love (far more than I can list here), but I’m simply listing the ones who really take me there – the ones who’ve somehow shaped my own writing and appreciation of the art of crime fiction.

Interesting article on Guardian website

http://preview.tinyurl.com/2cypfdn

That old chestnut about whether literary fiction is better than genre fiction has raised its ugly head again.

There’s good writing and bad writing and in some ways that’s all there is to say about it. If anybody is foolish enough to roll out that old chestnut that the best prose writers are all literary, then that person has never reader any Raymond Chandler. Chandler turned out some of the most beautifully honed sentences in English in the 20th century, and his facility with metaphor is almost without equal. Dashiell Hammett’s output was as influential on modern prose as the output of Hemingway – both men seemed to throw off the shackles of 19th century prose at almost the same time. And Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad worked within genre, but nobody would say they were constrained by their ‘limitations’. And in France, try telling anybody that George’s Simenon’s ‘Maigret’ books aren’t literature and they will probably laugh in your face.

Using Larsson and Brown as a point-of-reference for the basis of an article is almost pointless. Everybody knows that Brown can’t write a decent sentence, and it’s fairly common knowledge that the Millennium translations aren’t very good. The fact that nobody picks on Walter Mosley or John Le Carre and tries to suggest that their work is inferior to literary fiction, just shows that the genre’s best and brightest are a match for anybody on their day and that any argument like Docx’s can be blown out of the water.

Anyway, I’m glad to live in a world where I can read Don Delillo’s ‘Libra’ one day and James Ellroy’s ‘American Tabloid’ the next, where John Updike and James Crumley share shelf space, where John Hawkes and John Le Carre are just as likely to be picked up and read.