I really like Georges Simenon. It took me a long time to get around to reading any of his work (another case of writing off an author I thought would not appeal to me), but with each new book I pick up, I think I like him a little more. Last year I was introduced to Inspector Maigret (does anyone know how to correctly pronounce his name by the way?), who I thought was cool, calm and collected as well as quite sympathetic for a policeman. I liked his manner of detecting, which included more than a few stops at the local bar for a pernod, but don't worry he never overdid it. And I love that dark, gritty feel to the mystery as well, which Simenon seems to excel at.
I believe Simenon wrote hundreds of novels (though am not sure how many have been translated into English and how many of those are still in print), often dashing them off in a matter of weeks, he achieved a certain acclaim in his lifetime. Most seem to be very slender, quick reads. It was not a Maigret mystery that I turned to, but one of his romans durs, which if I understand correctly means "serious novel". I picked up Red Lights at the library, and this time it was a quick and easy, but still very satisfying read. The New York Review of Books has published a handful of Simenon's romans durs, which I now plan on trying to get my hands on. Each has an excellent introduction, Red Lights intro is written by Anita Brookner.
"In his heyday he was read largely but not exclusively by the people for whom he preferred to write, the petites gens of his own early milieu, who would understand and appreciate not only his pared-down style but also his intimate fatalism, before such a condition was codified by more sophisticated writers as alienation. The unease which underlies this condition is already present in Simenon's novels, and is most potently expressed not in the detective stories featuring Inspector Maigret but in the romans durs, the hard novels of which he was more proud."
I was thinking that his romans durs would be very noir-ish, and they are to some extent. Red Lights was certainly unsentimental, though for the two main characters there is some sort of redemption at the end.
"The formula is simple but subtle. A life will go wrong, usually because of an element in the protagonist's make-up which impels him to self-destruct, to willfully seek disgrace, exclusion, ruin in his search for a fulfillment and a fatal freedom which take on an aura of destiny."
"In a genre which has since been exploited, but never truly replicated, Simenon examines this phenomenon time after time and in a variety of settings. A man (and it is invariably a man) will suddenly act out of character and for no apparent reason. This divergence from his normal pattern of behavior will lead him to abandon safety, all caution, in the interest of that illusory freedom. This momentary rapture, against which he has no defense, will ensure his downfall, but the rash act will empower him in ways he has perhaps sought, almost unknowingly, all his life."
This is certainly true of Steve Hogan in Red Lights. Written in 1953 while Simenon was living in the United States, he describes 1950s America very convincingly. It's Labor Day weekend, and Steve and Nancy Hogan are ready to set off from New York City to Maine to pick up their two children from summer camp. They meet after work for a drink before they set off. There's the slightest bit of animosity between Steve and Nancy. Nancy has the better job in the City and often has to work late, which means Steve needs to get home quickly after work so the babysitter can leave on time. Everyone but Steve seems to have some place important to get to.
When Steven and Nancy are finally on the road, Steve makes an excuse to stop at one of the roadside bars, of which there is an abundance, for a quick drink. One bar turns to two. Nancy knows what's behind his excuses and knows what he's after. He's obviously no stranger to drink. She threatens to take the car herself and leave him and pick up the children herself, but he takes the key out of the ignition, so she can't. When he returns ten, fifteen, maybe it's even been twenty minutes later he finds the car empty and a note saying Nancy has gone on to Maine by bus, and she'll see him later. Several drinks gone, he's been at the rye and now he gives in to his urges and goes on a total bender. It's what he calls "the tunnel", giving in to the dark side of drink.
He meets up with an escaped prisoner from Sing Sing. In a strange way he feels like he's found a kindred spirit, a real man. Maybe it's the drink talking, but Steve rambles on and on to him about his wife and his failed life. The next day, however, he finds himself on the side of the road, the car with a flat tire and his money and ID gone and little recollection about what really happened the night before. When he calls the children's camp looking for Nancy, he discovers she never arrived.
Without giving away any more of the plot, I will say this is a great little novel, which gives a peak at cultural and social attitudes ca. 1950 America. It was wonderfully atmospheric but in a different way than the Maigret novels. And while it is an easy read I don't want to give the impression that the story is simple or without depth. I'll definitely be reading more Simenon.