L’Horloger D’Everton, Georges Simenon

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Simenon wrote L’Horloger d’Everton in 1954, in Lakeville, Connecticut. It is one of the 25 works – romans-durs and Maigrets – that will be produced during his 5 years in America. That’s 5 novels per year, on average. Perhaps, because of his abundant productivity, his writing did not change between France, the US or Switzerland. What is noticeable though, in this book, is the abundance of items that are given their american labels: living room, dad, slacks, rye, high school, federal building, etc… italicized whenever utilized.

L’Horloger d’Everton is the story of a father, Dave Galloway, living alone with his son Ben, 16, ever since Ben’s mother, Ruth left them when the boy was 6 months old.
Dave leads a monotonous life among the inhabitants of Everton; he is familiar with most of his neighbors because of his watch-repairing shop. Every Saturday night, he heads off to his friend Musak, and they spend their Saturdays playing trictrac with their rye drinks.

Heading back home on one of those Saturdays, Dave finds that Ben is not there. Brought out of his house by the cries of his neighbor, Mrs. Hawkins, dragging her drunkard husband up the stairs towards their home, Dave is made aware of her concern that it is a little too late for Ben and Lilian to be at the movies. This ludicrous scene, between the cries of the drunk Mr. Hawkins, his wife trying to shut him up, forcing him to stand still, while informing Dave that Ben has been a frequent guest of their house for the past three months, shakes up Dave’s impression that he and Ben were on the same page, that they understood one another, that they were a good team. In this badly-lit hallway, Dave starts to realize that his life with Ben  as he thought he knew it, is no more.

In the early morning light, the missing elements of Ben’s disappearance start falling into place: a visit by the police tells him that his son stole an Oldsmobile after, as it might seem, having murdered its owner; he is riding on the interstate along with a girl, Lilian, most probably.

The events that follow are very American in their appearance, and I got the feeling that Simenon couldn’t have written them as such had he not spent time there, whilst retaining his own rendering of Dave’s grasp of this new reality. A manhunt is set on track after Dave’s interrogation by the police and the press invades Dave’s little privacy. In a matter of hours, America knows about the police chasing the dangerous suspect Ben through the news flashes that interrupt the radio programs transmitting baseball games.

I won’t say more about the plot; it is a quick read but one that I don’t recommend. I haven’t read Simenon in almost two years, having finished Assouline’s biography of him in January 2013, and I thought it was about time to pick up something by him again.

I suppose if one is familiar with Maigret and picks up this book, then yes, I can understand being taken by L’Horloger d’Everton. However, What I saw was a repetition of characters, a repetition of expressions and almost the same setup of other romans-durs. For example, I wonder if Simenon ever wrote a novel in which the protagonist spoke or expressed himself much more than just absorbed what is going on around him, passively grasping the reality of things, acting more than just a mere observer of life. Rare are the books where the protagonist is a woman, or where woman have a positive influence on the plot.

There are variations among the novels, to be sure: cigarettes or pipes, murderers vs innocent, married or single, rich or poor, but nothing deep. These slight variations do not hold my interest much long. The plot structure triggered by a murder that transforms the reality of those affected by it without them having any influence on the course of events is a structure that works in Maigrets but not in the romans-durs.

This is why when I’ll be picking up Simenon again it will be a Maigret. At least in a Maigret, I know I will be jumping in a pre-defined environment, the Quai des Orfevres, Paris, the shady individuals, the extravagantly rich people, the wife of Maigret in the background, the heater of Maigret, his temper, his compassion with the victims, his understanding of the complexities of family life… If I read a dozen of similar Maigrets, I’m not bothered. But stumbling upon the “serious” novels which explicitly and repeatedly borrow from the Maigret is something I no loner enjoy.

To be fair, how much can an author change in 400 novels, novellas and short stories, not forgetting that I didn’t read half of those. Judging from the titles, I suppose there are novels that do not quite resemble those I’ve read so far, for example: La Veuve Coudère, Lettre À Mon Juge, and Pedigree.
Though I don’t recommend it, L’Horloger D’Everton is a book praised by TS Eliot who was also a fan of the Maigret novels, and it fared well when it was published. Perhaps, this is why there are so many covers of this book, a surprise I received when searching for a cover image to add to my post.

I picked the top cover because at least the image reflects a scene that is present twice in the book when Dave crumbles down on his bed first after suspecting that Ben might have completely taken off, and the second time when he is done with the press and is completely beat. The image also resembles his incomprehension when Ruth left him.

The grey cover right below does not reflect the content of the book because we’re only in Dave’s workshop in the first pages of the book, the second one in red plays on the mystery of the Oldsmobile, the Livre de Poche cover is too abstract for our story, and the last cover promises a love story as it seems.

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Cover Her Face / Maigret Tend un Piège

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I bundled these crime stories together because I did not enjoy either.

I got Cover Her Face by P.D. James for a bargain of 3.99 Euros in Frankfurt on my visit there. It’s a Faber Firsts edition; apparently, they are reissuing the first works of several authors to celebrate Faber’s eightieth birthday. This also was my first P.D. James, and most probably my last.

The book is not boring or anything, but it did not interest me one bit. At the time, I was also listening to an Agatha Christie, The Body in the LIbrary, an audiobook read by Stephanie Cole. Because I have gulped so many Christies in my youth, I have a natural tendency to compare similar works to hers, and more often than not, they usually fall short. Additionally, the audiobook, if read by a professional, opens up a different experience for us, especially us who are not native English speakers, and one gets the opportunity of sensing the subtle variations among characters through the vocal performance of the reader.

I suppose all these factors contributed to my indifference towards Cover Her Face. The story is quite simple: at a fête in St. Cedd’s Church, a yearly event, the new maid of the family who usually organizes the fête, the Martingales, is found murdered. Early in the book, we are told how the new parlour maid has been hired as a nice gesture from Mrs. Martingale, even though with time passing by she proved to be not the smoothest helping hand to deal with… The subtle interactions among the family members and their friends were the interesting part (for me) in the book. What I disliked was Inspector Dalgliesh himself, and his procedures, if he has procedures. I couldn’t frame the guy: was he indifferent? was he someone focused on the police procedures rather on the psychology of the people? Was he a combination of both?

I suppose P.D. James further developed the character of her inspector but for now; I had the same feeling with Wallander when I read another first Mankell. I suppose if I lay my hands on an audiobook rendition of one of her books, I might give her another chance.

In Maigret Tend un Piège (Maigret Sets a Trap), I felt that Simenon decided this time to focus on the working environment of Maigret rather than on his abilities to identify with the victims and the suspects. Having read his biography by Assouline, I discovered that actual detectives found his books rather funny and quite far from the realities of real police work.

Because of that, this story departs from several fixtures of previous Maigret stories. For instance, this is one of the few times where the weather in the story is nice: sunny, no rain, no fog, no overcoat under which Maigret must cover himself… 

Another difference to other Maigrets is that, for the first time, if I’m not mistaken, Maigret finds himself in front of a serial killer. The story has some similarities to Jack The Ripper’s, though of course it is not set in Whitehall but in Montmartre. In the narrow streets and alleys of Montmartre women are either murdered or aggressed with the intention of murder. The trap that Maigret sets takes the form of a policewoman who is supposed to lure the murder into aggressing her right on time for the police to capture him. His scheme fails, yet sets him on another hypothesis that he explores to its limits. One of the few times where Maigret actually employs the police in his investigations to something more substantial than stakeouts and information gathering

Consequently, we find ourselves in front of a SuperMaigret: he barely sleeps, turns the circle of action where the crimes are happening or might happen into an artificial enclosure, turns himself into a one-man-show central command, is quite aware of the press and manipulates it to his own advantage, all the while managing to evade the inquisitive questions of the Juge Coméliau who is taking heat from his superior.

The police procedures of Maigret’s investigations have never been Simenon’s forte, and because Maigret has an indifference towards his superiors, one usually takes them more in humor than in seriousness. The real interest comes to us when the suspect is apprehended thereby revealing his psychology, his past, and his working environment; I was more looking forward to when Maigret returns to the atelier of the suspect than to when he returns home or to his office.

Because the book has an air of solving a serial killer mystery, it takes the form of a whodunnit, and here too I found myself waiting for the page before the last to have the identity of the murderer revealed. The book was made into a movie starring Jean Gabin and Annie Girardot. Unfortunately, the movie has nothing to do with the book. I never liked Jean Gabin as Maigret: I found him too loquacious to be a Maigret. The movie also introduced a relationship between two characters, probably to throw us off, that was not even in the book. One final detail I like to mention about the movie, because I suppose this must have irritated Simenon: it rains over Jean Gabin in the ending scene when he walks out to the streets, having solved the mystery. Simenon was, at a moment in his life, attempting to react against his publishers and the press who were requesting the typically Simonian “atmosphere” of rain and fog and cold, and I was very much surprised to find it there at the last scene of the movie.

Simenon by Pierre Assouline

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I always imagined Pierre Assouline to be a Simenon parasite. This is because I had bought his biography of Simenon two years before he published the Auto-dictionnaire of Simenon, and I wondered how much more would he milk out of Simenon’s reputation.  

In all honesty though, both books are quite nice to have for Simenon fan(atics)

“Simenon” is the first biography I read (I think… at least not counting the political figures’ biographies). I normally don’t like to know the hidden details of the lives of authors – or people in general – whom I admire; but I rationalized that I have read too many Simenon books that I could take the blow, if there would be one. And boy are there plenty in this book! 

Assouline managed to write 940 pages on Simenon and he still has tons of unpublished material; this is hardly surprising, as Simenon was such a prolific writer. Around 400 published books of hard novels, Maigret stories, crime stories without Maigret, some fluffy romance novels, screenplays, and memoirs… Surprisingly, the material for those romance novels and for the crime stories (the bulk of his work) come from Simenon’s youth: he had little exposure to the world of police and courts after his journalist years. 

Assouline divides the book into titled chapters including the timeframe the chapter deals with. I think Assouline did a very good job reflecting the gradual transition Simenon undertook from a simple reporter to an author hugely admired by Gide and supported by the prestigious Nouvelle Revue Francaise. Then again, Simenon himself aids Assouline in this clear-cut division of his working years; it seemed that Simenon knew exactly where he wanted to be at particular points in time. 

He knew how much time span to give writing popular novels, before moving to Maigret, building his reputation there, before again taking the risk to write serious literature. Assouline presents to us a writer who was in control of the the minutest details that affect his work: for instance, he had a daily writing routine that he changed little wherever he would find himself around the world: waking up at 6 am, soundproof bureau, his pipes charged and ready before him, yellow envelopes, white paper, the yellow pages, dictionaries, coffee (and Coca Cola when he was writing in America).

He exercised a lot of control over his author’s rights, and he was one of the few who were able to command such high royalties and advances over his books. Assouline goes into the intricate details of Simenon’s accounting books, unearths correspondence between Simenon and his publishers to demonstrate what a tough businessman he was; a reputation that became solidly established in the world of publishing at that time. Even when he was young in the business, he would be furious at the manipulation done to his books when they were transported into movies (though having his books made into movies at that time was a feat by itself) and he learned, early on, to be quite cautious with production houses, screenwriters and directors. Similarly, once he familiarized himself with the English language, living in America, he rechecked the English translations of his books, and it did not take him more than a year before he broke off his contract with his English translator, the respected Geoffrey Sainsbury.

Though Simenon had such a rigorous system when he was writing, yet he managed to get in touch with the local culture, wherever he found himself, but only as an observant. Assouline tells of an incident where Simenon sensed the suspicious looks of two gentlemen at a cafe in Lakesville, Arizon who suspected “The Frenchman”, as they used to call him there, fishing around for stories. Nevertheless, his environment never influenced his writing style, and it would be quite the challenge to point out which novels were written in Paris, which ones in America, and which ones in Switzerland, later.

What I particularly loved about the book are the thorough investigations Assouline undertakes when digging out little details. He does an excellent job, since early on in the book, in setting apart the memorialist from the writer. Frequently, he will point out to some incident that Simenon writes about in his “Mémoires Intimes” or in his previous memoirs, and will detail the differences between the two, supporting his claim by other evidences. Early on, we are told that Simenon is not be trusted when he remembers the past events of his life. 

Assouline reveals, albeit towards the end of the book, what could be (because we are never sure) the true source for the name Maigret, he also reveals personal, family details about the Simenons, about Marie-Jo, about Denyse, Simenon’s second wife. He shocked me with how little Simenon read and how little interested he was in the literary world. By itself, this is not a bad thing, but Simenon in this biography is quite the self-centered type. For example, it wasn’t until later that we realize, from his own letters, how little he paid attention to Gide and how ignorant he was of his novels, even though Gide was quite helpful in pushing him upon Gallimard, in proofreading his stories, in helping him draw his characters… Though I write this months after reading this book, I still remember how horrified I was when I read Simenon’s notes about Gide – sometimes, his egocentricity bordering on ungratefulness and hypocrisy. 

Having said that, Simenon himself suffered from his Maigret-writer reputation, his voluminous production – though with all the care and business strategies in the world – could never shift the light from Maigret to his hard-novels. He was never the recipient of the Goncourt prize, never made it to the Académie; his “presidency” of the Festival de Cannes was a big flop. 

At the end of the book, it seemed to me that he was quite a mechanical writer, quite modern in his production: he was able to structure his novel in such a way to attract the regulars yet with slight variations to keep readers asking for more, but rarely, if ever, showed much originality. This is clearly reflected in the sales figures of his books, his Maigret books outselling his romans-furs 3 to 1, but both maintaining more or less the same publication figures: the Maigrets at around 60,000 copies (in France) and the romans-durs at around 20,000 copies.

In conclusion, I found the book quite entertaining, very enriching, as objective as a biography could be, and quite honestly a must-read for Simenon fans. 

Mon Ami Maigret

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When I woke up last Saturday to a gorgeously dark sky brooding with heavy clouds, I knew it was ripe time to pick-up a new Simenon.

I have 6 Volumes of the Tout-Maigret, from Omnibus, and I am starting with the fourth volume.
To my (slight) disappointment, the story I chose Mon Ami Maigret, is set at an island, Porquerolles, with its flanelle-clad dwellers and harsh sunlight casting golden reflections over the sea. One of the rare “sunny” cases, but yep, it had to be this one.

Brushing such a minor letdown aside, the book was fun to read. The first chapter opens up a tad on the hyperbole, when the reader learns that Mr. Pyke, the title name of the first chapter, is dispatched from Scotland Yard to observe the investigative methods of Maigret. Since this is Simenon writing, this inflated Maigret figure, himself suddenly under scrutiny from Mr. Pyke, is barely given much space, and we are directed back in, to the reality of the Quai des Orfevres, a bit too bluntly even, when Maigret receives a phone call from a brigadier relaying him the news that a man was murdered in Porquerolles because of his friendship with him.

Though I find Simenon favoring, often too much, the silent dialogues between the guest characters and Maigret, in Mon Ami Maigret, I had the feeling that such an exchange between the two was not given enough space to develop. Perhaps, this has to do with the sunny, not quite serious Porquerolles, which allegedly strikes new visitors with “Porquerollite” a virus that causes people to shed all formalities and embrace the sun and the sea, and the joie-de-vivre.
Nevertheless, what furtive exchanges occur between Maigret and Pyke remain the most interesting parts of the story; in fact, it is because of one of those, that I thought it would be interesting to review this book.

Here we are in 1949, an Englishman of the same profession as his French host, expresses his opinion about a suspect in the case. We are outside the café of the hotel, under the warm sunlight, there was between the Englishman and the suspect no interrogation, only a game of chess, and yet the Englishman is able to draw a portrait of the suspect, who is Dutch, because of general traits that he noticed and which are common among young people coming form morally rigid countries (comparing the Netherlands, back then, to England, is funny to me). He is even able to extend such an observation to the host country, France, claiming that the Dutch suspect must not seem a unique specimen to the French. Incidentally, his profiling of the Dutch came to confirm a mild uneasiness that Maigret felt around Mr. Pyke, because of the different approach he adopted questioning some of the suspects.

Maigret était un peu soucieux, un peu crispé. Sans être attaqué, il était chatouillé par l’envie de se défendre

Further ahead, Mr. Pyke informs Maigret that the Dutch speaks perfect English, an additional characteristic that adds definition to the Dutch’s portrait.

I appreciated those two pages for the simple reason that they feel quite distanced from us; how easy was it back then to sketch the identity of a character out of the general identity of a group, of a bigger sample. I find that these days everything is about assuming one’s own identity, about finding ourselves, uniqueness, differentiation. A crime writer of this present age cannot risk going into the familiar, or into the assumption, or into pre-defined types.

Before I close my review, and since this is Simenon writing, I find that the receding importance of the investigative techniques and procedures (to the disappointment of Pyke and his Scotland Yard superiors) and the untangling of the mystery in the background are what I enjoy most about every Maigret.

We are nearing the end of the story, the interrogation of the two suspects, which Maigret wanted to be done in confidentiality, at least as much as the island would allow it, is almost over

“Avouez, Monsieur X, que vous n’êtes pas fâché que ça craque!”

Jusqu’à ce “monsieur” qui blessait Y ay plus profond de lui-même.

at the same time, outside the interrogation room:

Le déjeuner avait commençé à l’Arche. Jojo n’avait pas dû se taire tout à fait, ou alors les gens flairaient quelque chose car on voyait de temps en temps des silhouettes rôder autour de la mairie.

Even though Maigret gave his orders to Jojo,t he girl who works at the café l’Arche, not to blabber about who is being interrogated and where, “word got out” as the saying goes and people started to gather around the mayor’s office.

We, readers, will never know how exactly word got out, and if it did, for that matter. It’s a totally inconsequential matter, because the book ends shortly after that, but I love that Simenon is able to move from ascertaining the psychology of the suspect, down to its minutest details, then gradually leaving the focal point of the interrogation to what is happening out there, without himself offering much about it, but nevertheless, creating a completely realistic and tangible atmosphere, very vivid in our mind, despite of (or maybe because of) the lack of any attempt to clearly resolve out every detail of the plot.