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.

La Neige Était Sale -The beginning-

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To read Simenon in his native language; to grasp his world, to indulge in every word he carefully selects, to capture his elusive characters is, without a doubt, to be privileged.

This book, “La Neige Etait Sale” (In English, Dirty Snow) is supposedly his best. Perhaps.

I’m only at the 22nd page and already feel the need to write something about them.

The story, I don’t care much about it to be honest, starts with Frank losing his virginity. Nothing sexual; it’s the first time he kills, not commits murder. Simenon differentiates between the two. (In Maigret et le Tueur, he highlights this distinction). The opening sentence reads: “Sans un événement fortuit, le geste de Frank Friedmaier, cette nuit-là, n’aurait eu qu’une importance relative.” Knowing Simenon beforehand, one assumes that this act could only mean killing; and it sounds alarming; taking another human’s life does not represent much of a significance to Frank. But Simenon is rarely harsh on his protagonists, possibly because he lives with them this short time span writing the novel.

We can only guess why Frank does what he does or thinks the way he thinks; Simenon generously distributes question marks when defining his characters: “Est-ce parce qu’il était à l’affût que cela a fait figure d’occasion?” […] “Alors pourquoi toussa-t-il juste au moment ou l’homme allait atteindre l’impasse?” […] “Est-ce à cause de Sissy, la fille de Holst?”

But I daresay that it’s because of these questions, because of so many “cela etait sans aucune importance” that one enjoys his books… Because this protagonist is not a murderer, he is not a calculating psychopath, his psychological portrait is open to interpretation; Simenon’s characters do not fit a pre-defined classification; after all they are people whom he sees in cafés, strolling down sidewalks, strangers he briefly encounters. These everyday beings, he transports them into his world, and proceeds with his social and psychological experimentation. (As much as writing allows experimentation)

Moving a couple of pages along, Frank starts making some sense to us, not because of a psychological elaboration; rather we begin by sensing this relation that develops between an individual and a surrounding society. This relationship is paradoxical; it feels as if Frank is dependent on it, yet at the same time he wants to detach himself, he wants to demonstrate his indifference towards it; this is perfectly reasonable in Simenoian world: being part of this society was not Frank’s choice. It was imposed on him, not in the negative sense, no; simply, as a matter-of-fact.

For the moment, I content myself with this short introduction, transcribing below, what I consider to be, Simenon at his best.

“Il les obligeait presque à manger. Il mangeait avec elles. Il les pelotaient devant tout le monde. Il regardait ses doigts mouillés et il riait. Puis, régulièrement, un moment venait où il débouclait son ceinturon et le posait sur la table.

À ce ceinturon, il y avait un étui contenant un revolver à répétition.

En soi, tout cela était sans importance.”

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