Georges Simenon – An Appreciation of Style, Part 2

I am sure some of you are wondering whether this discussion on words and tone is relevant to your reading enjoyment, and perhaps you are asking: “Why bring this up? It’s the plot that matters.” And to that, I agree. But first, let us look at how Mr. Simenon uses plot in his novels. I was drawn to his stories because of his unique approach, one that uses the detective format to tell a story, not about the detective, but about the characters. In his stories, we have two major participants: the murderer and the victim. As Maigret is quoted: “I will know the murderer when I know the victim well” (qtd in Bresler 79), and so he begins to tell us about the victim. As Mr. Bresler explains:

   His role from the very start, unlike that of his greatest English rival, Sherlock
   Holmes, is not to reason, but to understand intuitively the mainsprings of human
   activity so that he arrives at a complete comprehension of how, and why, the
   victim and the murderer have behaved as they have done (79).

The author uses this technique as a sort of “rope” to tell the story. He quotes Mr. Simenon:

   “If one chapter is bad, people will go through the book anyway because they
   like to know the end. And equally you have a rope – the detective is a kind
   of rope, so you follow him. And because he is a detective he has the right to
   ask questions of people. He has the right to enter their houses” (Bresler 65-66).

And it is through this method that we are introduced to the characters and the story surrounding their circumstances, those of the murderer’s and those of the victim’s, the type of life they lived and how they got to such a state in which we are reading about. And it is this story, the story about these people, that Simenon wishes to tell and not a story about his detective, as he says, who is only “a kind of rope” to assist us, the reader, through the story. As a matter of fact, we know little about Inspector Maigret; little is said or revealed about him other than what is warranted by the plot. He is not presented in a manner anything like what we are accustomed to in today’s crime fiction. He is not drunk, moody or depressed. He is not an obsessive, he is not trying to settle a grudge that only he can resolve, nor is he trying to discover his identity or fight personal demons, and he does not have a side occupation of killing people at night.

Although these types of crime solvers do make interesting and engaging reads, what we do have, what this author gives us in the way of a detective, is a decent married man, clever and intuitive, a person who is good at solving crimes. Again, the Inspector, is not the focus of the story, but the murderers and the victims are. What the Inspector does contribute to the novel is the “rope.”

I believe Agatha Christie also used this technique in her Miss Marple stories as did other writers in the first half of the 20th century. With the introduction of the Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade-type detectives, the focus started to shift and writers of mystery stories discovered that they could add another element to their stories, a third element, and that is by enlarging the role of the individual who does the investigating: the private detective and later the police detective. Instead of using the victim or the victim’s family as sympathetic characters for the reader to identify with (and sometimes even using the murderer for this purpose), the reader can now latch onto the principal character, especially when he/she has been given an interesting and engaging personality or a great personal challenge (drunkenness, moodiness, depression, etc.) The more volatile this personality is or the personal challenge he faces, the greater the roller coaster ride of emotions will be for the reader, and consequently a more engaging story.

However, this third element of a more fully developed detective is not what Mr. Simenon uses in his Maigret novels. But he was concerned about creating three-dimensional characters, just not in his Maigret novels. In The Paris Review he states:

   My characters – I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional. And
   I would like to make a man so that everybody, looking at him, would find his
   own problems in this man. . . . My characters have a profession, have character-
   istics; you know their age, their family situation, and everything. But I try to make
   each one of those characters heavy, like a statue (Collins).

The reader can decipher certain attributes about Inspector Maigret by this character’s pattern of behavior and his use of keen intuition. As for his physical appearance, it is often noted that in Simenon’s eighty-plus novels, this detective is only described with the scantiest of details: there is mention of him being a big man, wearing a bowler hat, and perhaps a “pipe clenched between his teeth” (67). We also know his coat had a velvet collar. Bresler discusses the “facelessness of Maigret” and quotes Simenon as saying, “I still do not know what his face looks like. . . . I only see the man and the presence” (66).

So that brings us back to the main subject of each novel. What we have are the two principle characters: the murderer and the victim (assuming that they may not always be singular) and the plot through which they are both revealed. I have two examples of such plots. In Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, Inspector Maigret steals a suitcase filled with old clothes at a train station and follows various suspects while trying to figure out why a young man would kill himself over its loss and why others would search so passionately for its return. Of course, the hook is the suicide resulting from the loss of the suitcase, and from that Simenon unwinds a story about a group of men who the detective follows from Paris to Belgium and Germany, and who at times each want to confess something to this detective and thus reveals part of their life story, only to have them pull back later, leaving Maigret (and the reader) to put the pieces together.

The story line in Maigret’s Pickpocket, a later novel, is about a pickpocket who returns the wallet he has stolen from Maigret, after which he leads the Inspector to a dead body, the man’s wife. The story unfolds as the Inspector traces the man’s alibi back to various restaurants and cafes through the questioning of film producers, directors, and camera men whom are involved in their own way in the pickpocket’s life; and through such means as questioning, Mr. Simenon and his detective, keeps the reader guessing as to whom among them could be the murderer.

We can see from these examples how Mr. Simenon uses plot to reveal the lives of his characters, the murderers and the victims. And through his method of using simple common words, in the simplest of forms, and lacking any unnecessary adjective or adverb, he gives us an interesting story, one which can be read through with ease. This may seem inconsequential, but Mr. Simenon was actually concerned about the length in pages and reading time of his novels. In answer to a question, if length was important to him, he responded by saying:

   Yes. That sounds like a practical question, but I think it is important, for the
   same reason you can’t see a tragedy in more than one sitting. I think that the
   pure novel is too tense for the reader to stop in the middle and take it up the
   next day (Collins).

Although I believe this quote was referring to his later novels, I can’t help think that the seed of this idea was already planted in his early works and matured into his later non-Maigret novels.

As a side note, I am sure that this style also makes the novels easy to translate. We are fortunate to have most, if not all, of the Maigret novels in translation and available.

Works Cited:
Bresler, Fenton S. The Mystery of Georges Simenon: a biography. New York:
   Beaufort Books, Inc., 1983.
Collins, Carvel. “Interviews. Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No 9.” The
   Paris Review. The Paris Review, n.d. Web.
Simenon, Georges. Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, trans. Tony White. Penguin
   Books: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1963.
—. Maigret’s Pickpocket, trans. Nigel Ryan. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf

Georges Simenon – An Appreciation of Style, Part 1

I have made several references to my appreciation of Mr. Simenon’s writing style, specifically regarding his Maigret novels, and I would like to take a few minutes now to explain why. Most of the information here, which relates to Mr. Simenon personally, is from Fenton Bresler’s book, The Mystery of Georges Simenon, A Biography. It was written in 1983 while the author was still alive. I also make reference to an interview he gave to The Paris Review in the summer of 1955. Mr. Simenon died in 1989 having written a good 80 plus Maigret novels. I am sure his fans and followers have already discovered this Maigret website (http://www.trussel.com/
f_maig.htm) which is current with all information relating to Mr. Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.

Mr. Simenon had written other detective stories before his most famous one (early 1930s), which were sold to the pulp magazines. Later, after his success, he wrote other novels along with his Maigrets. These were more psychological and perhaps even literary, a term he rarely used. Regarding the early detective and adventure stories, he is credited with having written eighty pages a day. Bresler quotes him as saying, “That means eighty pages of typing a day, at ninety-two words a minute,” Simenon goes on to explain:

   You don’t count in words in France or in Belgium, you count in lines. And they
   were novels of 10,000 lines each and I wrote them in three days! In French there
   are roughly seven words to a line, in English there are more because the words
   are shorter and in German there are less because the words are longer, but if you
   multiply by seven that means every novel was 70,000 words. In one month I once wrote
   five such novels (qtr in Bresler 52).

He was not referring to the Maigret novels, but those that were published under his seventeen pseudonyms, and “he could have six stories in a single issue of a magazine, each story signed with a different name” (Bresler 53). This prodigious output reminds me of the American writer of western tales, Max Brand (Frederick Faust), who was also in the habit of publishing under various pseudonyms in the same issue of a magazine: “Argosy for August 23, 1935, carried installments of book-length serials by Max Brand and Dennis Lawton, and a long story by George Challis: but no ordinary reader would have guessed that they were written by the same author” (Easton 182).

Commenting on his own method of writing during those early years before the Maigrets, he said:
   I would sit in front of the windows in the flat in the Place des Vosges, then suddenly
   I would get up, go the typewriter and write a story. Then I’d sit down by the window
   again. That happened up to eight times a day because I often wrote eight stories in a
   day (qtr. in Bresler 53).

What I like about Simenon’s style, which I suspect others do, also for this same reason, is his economy of words. He does this almost to a fault (the “fault” I will discuss at another time). Mr. Simenon claimed, from a statistic he had read once, that half the people of France used no more than 600 words in total. “So I endeavoured to use only ‘material’ words: a table, a chair, the wind, the rain. If it rains, I write, ‘It rains’; you will not find in my books drops of water that transform themselves into pearls, or I don’t know what. I want nothing that resembles literature. I have a horror of literature” (Bresler 2). And in reference to a question regarding the novel The Brothers Rico, (a non-Maigret crime novel) Simenon says, “I tried to do it very simply, simply. And there is not a single ‘literary’ sentence there, you know? It’s written as if by a child” (Collins).

Mr. Simenon was also economical in the Maigret novels when it comes to the use of internal dialogue, unlike, say Ruth Rendell, and more along the lines of Agatha Christie in the Miss Marple novels. Most of Maigret’s inner thoughts expressed on the page are those which pertain directly to the case, usually those inspired by the sight of someone present or within sight. To keep a 3rd person narrative moving, I believe the limit of internal dialogue is important, and I enjoy seeing how he handles this.

There are variations to this however, in Maigret’s Pickpocket (1967), the opening chapters have him ruminating about his wife acquiring a driver’s license, of course these ruminations are important to the plot, if he had not been distracted by these thoughts, he would have been aware that a pickpocket was after his wallet and ID. In an earlier work, Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets (1931), the reader is filled in on the action during the first few pages by an omniscient narrator, but this one particular narrator does not seem to want to leave and so remains long after the novel’s storyline was in full play.

Most of these incursions by this narrative voice was to guide the reader. Several examples of this from Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets are as follows: “Was it Maigret or Van Damme who suggested a stroll? In fact, neither did. It came about naturally” (Simenon 50) and “Had he in fact spoken? Could the Inspector, in that fantastic atmosphere, have been the victim of a delusion?”(Simenon 90). These side comments, acting as guideposts for the reader, do fit the free flowing style of this particular short novel. However, I do not see this narrative tone repeated in the later Maigret novels where such a tone would not fit.

To be continued.

Works Cited:
Bresler, Fenton S. The Mystery of Georges Simenon: a biography. New York: Beaufort
  Books, Inc., 1983.
Collins, Carvel. “Interviews. Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No 9.” The Paris
  Review. The Paris Review, n.d. Web. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5020/the
  -art-of-fiction-no-9-georges-simenon.
Easton, Robert. Max Brand, The Big Westerner. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
Simenon, Georges. Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, trans. Tony White. Harmondsworth,
  Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1963.
—-. Maigret’s Pickpocket, trans. Nigel Ryan. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf

Julian Symons – Bloody Murder, Part 2

Julian Symons – Bloody Murder: From the detective story to the crime novel (1985 Rev. Ed.)
Part 2 of 3, by Stephen Randorf.

Mr. Symons, in Bloody Murder, outlines three Golden Ages. The first is that of Sherlock Holmes during the early 1900’s. This period was a boom for short stories as well as the beginning of the “Superman” type detective. I would like to mention here that one of Mr. Symons’s strong points, besides the long list of writers he familiarizes us with, is how he shows their interconnectedness, how each writer fits into the historic timeline of the crime writing genre.

With regard to the first Golden Age, Mr. Symons insightfully points out how the sprawling urbanization of London and the increase of daily commuters who wanted something other than long novels to read on their short train trips into the city, contributed to the popularity of the short story. These commuters soon came to prefer magazines with stories of a certain length, those whose reading-time would engage them for the duration of their commute, and could be concluded by the time they reached their destination (Symons 86). The Strand Magazine soon became available at the book stalls and supplied this need. Of course it contained the latest stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Would either the magazine or Sherlock Holmes have been as successful without the other? Probably, but that’s not how history works, the two were together and the success of one bred the success of the other.

The crime solving techniques of Sherlock Holmes put him in the category of the Superman detective “with no emotional attachments and little interest in everyday life” (Symons 74). He had two immediate successors: the American Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912) with his detective Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, known for The Thinking Machine (1907), which his character was; and the British G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Many of Mr. Futrelle short stories are available to sample at his website (http://www.futrelle.com). The odd fact about Mr. Futrelle is that he was on the Titanic when it went down. He was in mid-career as a writer at the time.

It was not only Mr. Doyle’s stories that appeared in The Strand Magazine. There were also the Max Carrados stories by Ernest Bramah (1868-1942), which some say were more popular than Sherlock Holmes. What made Mr. Bramah’s private investigator Max Carrados different? He was blind, a blind detective, as in Max Carrados (1914) and The Eyes of Max Carrados (1923).

And then there were the “Plain Man” detective stories, also in The Strand. As Symons says, these stories presented the detective more as a common man or “Plain Man” rather than a “Superman” (82). Arthur Morrison (1863-1945) featured such a “Plain Man” character, Martin Hewitt, in his stories published in The Strand Magazine. One such story was “The Stanway Cameo Mystery,” which Symons recommends (82). This story is also available at Project Gutenberg and can be found in the collection titled, Martin Hewitt, Investigator (1904). Another author who wrote in the same vein was M. McDonnell Bodkin (1850-1933), whose “Plain Man” character was Paul Beck. As Mr. Bodkin quotes his character, Paul Beck: “I just go by the rule of the thumb, and muddle and puzzle out my cases as best I can” (qtd. in Symons 82). Surely, not the “Superman” as was our Mr. Holmes.

If most of these references sound a bit British, it’s because they are. So let’s refresh ourselves with a few unfamiliar American names before we go on to another Golden Age. We have Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935), who is cited as the first woman in the US to write a detective novel. This was in 1878, The Leavenworth Case (Symons 60). I sampled a selection of her short stories and, considering they were written a hundred years ago, they too read well. I found the publication date of The Leavenworth Case of 1878 interesting since Doyle’s first Holmes story wasn’t published until 1887, although written the year before. Another American writer who dealt with crime and murder was Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958). She found success and acclaim with her second novel, The Circular Staircase (1908). Symons pointed out that her stories had a set “pattern” with “the air of being written specifically for maiden aunts, and they exploited a market which, with the spread of library borrowing, proved very profitable” (89-90).

Soon after that, we have Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries (1918) by Melville Davisson Post (1871-1930). These stories were set in pre-Civil War Virginia, and Symons claimed that their plots were “distinctly American,” which, as he says, would account for the lack of readership in the UK (Symons 81). To put these American writers in an historical timeline, we should remember that Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was not published until 1920.

I will skip over Hammett and Chandler, so much is written already. Symons deals with them under the chapter heading, “The American Revolution.” He also includes in this chapter James M. Cain (1892-1977), W. R. Burnett (1899-1982), Cornell Woolrich (1903-68), who Symons did not prefer because of the “continuous high-pitched whine of his prose” (129). Jonathan Latimer (1906-83) was also in this period. It was this “American revolution” with writers like Hammett and Chandler who “made the hard-boiled crime story respectable” and brought along a flurry of writers into the thirties (130).

With a brief interlude to discuss Georges Simenon’s “well rounded” Maigret (135), Symons quickly moved the narrative on to describe how the writers of another Golden Age, particularly those who were popular in the thirties, survived the changing times of the post-war period (WWI). How well did the characters Ellery Queen and Hercule Poirot do? Symons thought Agatha Christie adapted well to modern times. As he says, Agatha Christie did “better than most of her contemporaries” (140), and that “Poirot was intelligently modified” (140). And Margery Allingham’s (1904-66) well-bred Albert Campion? Symons thought that her detective, like the later Ellery Queen, “belonged to an earlier time and a different tradition” (141). He also found, in general, most of Ngaio Marsh’s (1899-1982) novels lacking because she “avoided emotional problems” of her characters (141).

Again, what I appreciate most in Symons’s Bloody Murder is his analysis. As he summarizes the new mood of the post-war period and the decline of the Superman detective, he states: “The attitude of the new writers were different. They wanted to combine popular entertainment with a study of ‘people and problems’, and often they felt that an investigator was out of place” (143).

Included in the chapter titled, “Crime Novel and Police Novel” he differentiates the two by setting up parallel columns to show how the main features (plot, method, clues, setting, etc.) vary between the two, the old and new (Symons 163). I’ve included a brief example of this:

    DETECTIVE STORY           CRIME NOVEL
     Characters              Characters

Only the detective is characterized    The basis of the story. The lives of
in detail. Otherwise characteriza-      characters are shown continuing
tion is perfunctory, particularly      after the crime, and often their
after the crime when people        subsequent behavior is important
become wholly subsidiary to plot.     to the story’s effect.

In this chapter, he also declares that Patricia Highsmith (1921- 95) as “the most important crime novelist at present in the practice” (165) and if you are not familiar with her, perhaps it is because “American critics . . . have been slow to recognize outstanding homegrown talents” (165).

To be continued.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf

Introduction


A Reason And Purpose For Being Here.

These thoughts, which I am presenting, are what happen afterwards, after we put down a good book. Of course, we are filled with many thoughts at that time and, as we all know, there are a lot of good books out there to put down, so I’ve decided to limit my selections to those that I think readers of crime fiction might be interested in and other books, which I believe, might need a little extra attention before they slip into that dark realm of obscurity. The reason for their being here, I hope, will be for what they have contributed to the discussion of writing and what I think will be of general interest to those who want to know more.

Yes, this will be subjective, and I expect most of you will skim through the topics with folded arms while sighing, “Hmm?” And, I have no doubt that this same sigh will be repeated when you realize that so few contemporary crime and mystery writers have been mentioned. Most, many, but not all, will be authors of the past. I, as a person who writes in this genre, find it difficult not to be influenced by what I read in matters of style and substance, so I feel more comfortable in reading the works of those who are more distant in time and/or language. But don’t assume automatically that a writer I have mentioned has passed away. I enjoy picking up a Lee Child’s book and selecting several pages to read at random to refresh myself on the technique of quick pacing or a short story by Ian Rankin to remind myself on how a good tale should be told. But in general, I prefer a Maigret novel by the French author Georges Simenon and the few translated works of Seicho Matsumoto. Both men’s prodigious output I view with great admiration. Of course, these books are read in translation, which I actually enjoy because I find that specific writing style to be clear, simple, and direct. I am sure that a good argument can be made that I am missing the author’s unique style of storytelling, which is probably correct, but it is that clear and simple translated style that I wish to emulate in my own work. As it is, whenever I pick up Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates (Suna no Utsuwa) to clear my head of convoluted sentences and add the pacing of simple words, and start by reading one of his short chapters, I inevitably go on to another chapter, and then another, and another. Well . . . I am sure you know how that ends.

The first couple of Afterwards will include discussions on Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder, an excellent summary of the crime fiction novel’s history; and no doubt a little bit of Dostoevsky. Let’s not forget, his novels were crime novels. And I think a discussion on last century’s critic Edmund Wilson and the earlier Vissarion Belinsky (when author reviews meant something in society) would be interesting. Perry Mason? We haven’t heard that name in a while, other than in reference to the long running TV series. There were actual books written by Mr. Gardner. Wikipedia has over 80 works attributed to him. Most of the novels were published by William Morrow and Company. Perhaps there can be a comment or two regarding his writing style. And maybe Agatha Christi, if I find something to say about her books that hasn’t already been said. And what about our contemporary writers? Don’t worry, I’ll get to a few of those, as well. And, hopefully, any discussion concerning TV crime shows will be limited. I consider most television dramas to be the novel’s evil twin of the entertainment world.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf