By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In 1920, at the age of 17, he published his first novel, Au Pont des Arches, with illustrations by various artists, including his mentor, the slightly satanic Lafnet. A humorous work, Au Pont des Archesenjoyed local success. It had been written under the name Georges Sim, a nom de plume Simenon was to retain for some years, and which he kept even after he had moved to Paris at the age of 20 and seriously got down to the business of making himself into a real writer.
He began to submit stories to Colette, then literary editor of the newspaper Le Matin. She urged him to pare his style to the bone, surely the best advice he ever received, and which he wisely took. He set to writing pulp fiction, in which he was highly successful, churning out books under a couple of dozen pen names. By his middle 20s he was rich, and embarked on a series of travels that would take him throughout Europe and to Africa and, in 1934, all the way ’round the world. It was a pattern of unremitting work and obsessive restlessness that was to endure for most of his life.
In 1923, he married a young painter named Régine Renchon, but the marriage did not last. In New York, just after the war, he met Denyse Ouimet, a French Canadian 17 years his junior, whom he had interviewed for a secretarial job. The couple were married in 1950, in Reno — it was courting disaster, surely, to marry in America’s divorce capital — and moved to Connecticut, where they lived for the next five years. Returning to Europe in 1955, the Simenons settled in Lausanne, Switzerland, in a huge house, Epalinges, which they had designed themselves and which was as ugly and clinically functional as a hospital. As this second marriage disintegrated — Simenon had been carrying on a long affair with a servant in the house — Ouimet floundered into depression. In 1964 she left the antiseptic Epalinges for a real hospital.
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Shortly afterward, their troubled daughter Marie-Jo also entered on a course of psychiatric treatment, but to no avail, and in 1978 she killed herself. Marie-Jo had been frankly and hopelessly in love with her father from an early age. However, in a volume of memoirs published in 1981, Simenon blamed Ouimet for the girl’s death. Ouimet had already made her case against her husband in an angry memoir of her own, Un Oiseau pour le chat, published the year their daughter died. It could all have been a plot for one of Simenon’s novels, although he probably would have rejected it as too melodramatic.
Pietr le Letton (1930), the first novel that Simenon published under his own name, introduced his best-known character, the pipe-smoking detective Inspector Maigret. Between 1930 and 1973, when he retired from fiction writing and devoted himself to dictating his memoirs, Simenon produced some 80 Maigret novels. It is on these books that his fame chiefly rests. It is calculated that half a billion “Simenons,” in 50 languages, have been sold; but his finest work is in the romans durs, or “hard” novels, ten of the finest of which have been republished, in new or heavily revised translations, by the New York Review of Books.
Most crime fiction, no matter how “hard-boiled” or bloodily forensic, is essentially sentimental, for most crime writers are disappointed romantics. William T. Vollmann, in an afterword to the NYRB edition of Simenon’s greatest masterpiece, Dirty Snow, contrasts him with Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe novels, despite their elegance, wit and polished metaphors, seem now distinctly soft-boiled. “Chandler’s novels,” Vollmann writes, “are noir shot through with wistful luminescence; Simenon has concentrated noir into a darkness as solid and heavy as the interior of a dwarf star.” Only Patricia Highsmith approaches Simenon’s ability — indeed, his compulsion — to show the world as it really is, in all its squalor, excitement and contingent cruelty, yet Highsmith’s characters are paper-thin compared to the French master’s vividly multidimensional men and women.
Newcomers to this existentialist Simenon — the Maigret books, while entertaining, are often formulaic and even slapdash — might do well to begin with The Strangers in the House, for it is the quintessential roman dur: direct, spare, sensuously atmospheric, hypnotic in its realism, and honest in a way that few novelists would dare to be. What is written of the events of the narrative might be said of the book itself: “It was because it had all begun with such violence — in mud, blood and vomit — that everything had rushed to a climax.”
The book’s central character is Loursat, a semi-aristocratic small-town lawyer whose wife left him 20 years ago and who has since that time lived the life of a drink-sodden and misanthropic recluse. One winter night, he wakes to the sound of a gunshot from one of the rooms in the rambling old house, and after a search finds lying on a bed a man who has been shot through the neck and who dies at the exact moment of Loursat’s arrival. It turns out that Loursat’s daughter, who lives with him but with whom he has hardly exchanged a word since her mother’s disappearance, has without his knowing it been entertaining nightly a gang of her friends in the attic, one of whom is the murderer.