Mark Binelli’s Recommendations for the Mystery Novel Aficionado

By Mark Binelli

Continuing with our discussion of Georges Simenon's The Engagement, Mark Binelli responds to Chad Post's earlier blog entry about the book and even recommends some of his own picks for fans of detective fiction.—Editor's note.

Well, see, I'd actually dispute Gray's entire premise. Like you, Chad, I'm definitely not a mystery novel aficionado, but I have read more than five, and it seems to me that Gray's argument about Simenon could easily be made about writers like Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, James Ellroy or Patricia Highsmith, to name four genre practitioners who I think are just as dark and pessimistic as Simenon but who are much better writers. (Again, this should all be hedged by the fact that I've only read The Engagement.)

I agree that the book works best as a character study. It's all just undercut, for me at least, by the hacky plot points that Simenon seems incapable of not returning to, and which work completely at odds with his supposed cold-eyed realist's worldview. I think if you put your toe in genre, you have to do it right, otherwise the unsatisfying aspects of simple plot mechanics get in the way of everything else.

As far as books that play around with the detective genre that I like, it's funny—I feel like so many writers attempt this kind of thing (Auster, Lethem, Murakami) but it's tough to pull off. I thought Colson Whitehead's first book, The Intuitionist, was pretty great. Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark also comes to mind. It's very noirish and cinematic. Though I don't remember any detectives per se. I'm curious about that new Chabon book, but haven't read it. I can think of many more examples of films that do this successfully. (The gold standard, of course, being The Big Lebowski.) Not sure why this is. Maybe "detective genre" prose is often so stylized that it makes imitation, even by more literary writers, incredibly fraught... I'm not sure.



As a long time reader of Simenon (I must have read about 130 of the 180 books he published under his own name)and erstwhile translator of him too, I must respond to some of Mark Binelli’s remarks, even though I haven’t read this particular book for many years. I don’t think that in writing this book, or any of his hundred-odd “hard novels” as opposed to his Maigret novels, Simenon was remotely interested in either playing by genre rules or subverting them.  I simply don’t think he thought of them as crime novels or mystery novels at all, even though many of them (by no means all) contain some act of violence somewhere in the plot - as often a suicide as a murder.  Simenon began by writing all kinds of pulp novels under pseudonyms, to learn his craft, then when he felt ready to publish under his own name he moved on to what he called “semi-literary” novels: the Maigret books.  He chose detective fiction because it was a popular genre, and he always had a keen sense of the commercial.  But after a few years he dropped Maigret, to pursue his “hard novels”, which I think he regarded as straight novels and should be judged as such.  (He later returned to Maigret, because the hard novels took too much out of him emotionally, and he wanted to relax between them.) “The Engagement” dates from the early Thirties and was indeed one of the first “hard novels”.  As such it is relatively crude and has more than a touch of melodrama about it.  If memory serves me well, it’s an interesting book, but can’t compare with the great works of his maturity (which came in the Forties and Fifties, in my opinion).  Crude as it is, I still don’t think much is gained by looking at it as a crime novel and asking how well or badly it fits into the genre, let alone comparing it to Jim Thompson or James Ellroy, who are a completely different kind of writer, and if I may say so, a whole lot cruder than Simenon (though Patricia Highsmith may be a slightly better point of comparison).  Far better, in my view to judge Simenon as a “straight” writer, always bearing in mind that this particular book is a very early and relatively immature novel by a man who had a forty-year career as a novelist and wrote a hell of a lot of books.
COMMENT: Howard—which Simenon books are your favorites? Like I mentioned in the intro, even though NYRB has only reissued 8 or the 130-180, it’s still hard to figure out where to start. Of the ones available, which do you think is his best?
COMMENT: Of those that have appeared from NYRB, I’d certainly recommend “Dirty Snow”, “Red Lights”, “The Strangers in the House” and, with reservations, “The Man who watched Trains go by”. In my opinion, none of these are quite Simenon at his absolute peak, though “Dirty Snow” comes very close.  If you ever come across (titles are all those of the older translations) “The Heart of a Man”, “The Girl in his Past”, “The Little Man from Archangel”, “Four Days in a Lifetime” or (my personal favorite) “Act of Passion”, you’ll get an even better idea of how good he can be.
COMMENT: We’ll be sure to ask Edwin Frank if NYRB has any plans to reprint/retranslate any of these. Looks like THE WIDOW is the next one they’re doing.
COMMENT: If “The Widow” is the one I’m thinking it is - “La Veuve Couderc” in French - then it’s a good one.
COMMENT: You’re right—it is “La Veuve Couderc.”
COMMENT: Thanks, Howard. That’s all interesting to know. As I said, other than plodding through one of the Maigret books in a college French class, THE ENGAGEMENT is my introduction to Simeonon, so I’ll be curious to check out some of his more mature works.
COMMENT: Mark, I think that’s a good idea.  As I said before, the most important thing with any of the non-Maigret novels is not to read them as “crime novels” or “mystery stories”, any more than we would read Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, Camus’ “The Stranger” or Greene’s “Brighton Rock” in that way (to name three books that all feature crime in their plots).  I first started reading Simenon in my teens when I was also reading authors like Greene and Camus and the nineteenth-century Russians, and he seemed to me to fit right in.  Incidentally, Simenon himself always said that he was particularly influenced by Russian literature, especially Gogol, Chekhov, Dostoevsky and the shorter works of Tolstoy, like “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”.  Among French writers, he admired Balzac and Maupassant (but none of his contemporaries), and among American writers, Faulkner.  On his own admission, he read very little crime fiction and always resented the fact that, because he had made his name with the Maigret books, he was usually classified as a crime writer.  Another interesting sidelight: Andre Gide, who was a great admirer of Simenon, compared “La Veuve Couderc” - the book that NYRB is bringing out as “The Widow” - to Camus’ “The Stranger” and said that he thought the Simenon was superior.  (I don’t have an opinion about that, as it’s too long since I read either book.)
COMMENT: The NYRB sent me DIRTY SNOW along with THE ENGAGEMENT, so I’m very much looking forward to revisiting Simemon. I still think THE ENGAGEMENT falls short as character study, and the crime elements of the plot, for me at least, distracted from and ultimately overwhelmed whatever else he may have been up to. (I wasn’t approaching the book as a crime novel, btw. If anything, based on the jacket copy, I was thinking more about writers like Camus. But, as I said, in the case of this specific book, once I started reading, the pulpier aspects of the plot became impossible to ignore.)


Here’s a question, though: what influence, if any, did film have on his work? THE ENGAGEMENT, at least, felt very cinematic to me. And did he ever personally adapt his novels for the screen? Just quickly looking at the IMDB, it didn’t seem like it.
COMMENT: Simenon was clearly very influenced by the cinema.  His novels were adapted very early: I think the first one was in about 1931.  He was a lifelong friend of Jean Renoir, who made one of the earliest adaptations of his work: La Nuit du Carrefour, 1932.  He later numbered several film directors among his friends, notably Fellini and Clouzot, and was on the jury of the Cannes Festival in 1960.  I remember reading somewhere that he did have something to do with the screenplay of one of the early adaptations, but that his version was rejected, and also that he was planning to direct a film some time in the 1930’s, but that too came to nothing.  After these early unsuccessful brushes with the movie business, he tended to just sign the contracts and then wash his hands of whatever other people did with his books on the way to the screen.  But I think the influence is clear.  It seems to me that the speed and conciseness of his style, and his very precise use of visual imagery, owes a great deal to three influences: (1) the fact that he started out as a newspaper reporter; (2) painting, especially the Impressionists (his first wife was a painter, and he met a great many painters when the two of them moved to Pris in the 1920s); and (3) the early cinema.  And the influence went both ways: Simenon was almost certainly one of the French writers of the time who influenced the 1930’s school of what was known as “poetic realism”, associated with Carne, Renoir and Duvivier. 



You may be right, Mark, about the pulpier aspects of THE ENGAGEMENT.  As I’ve said before, it’s been a while since I read that particular novel.  I think many of his novels of the 1930s descend rather readily into melodrama, as if he hasn’t quite shaken off the effects of his apprenticeship writing hundreds of pulp novels in the 1920s.  In my opinion, he reaches maturity in the early 1940s, and his greatest period is from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s - roughly corresponding, as it happens, to the ten years he spent in the USA.  But that’s a personal view, of course.
DATE: 09/14/2007 2:25:31 PM

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