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Georges Simenon

ON MY SHELF, AUGUST 2021 . . . Chevreau, Cobley, Davies, Simenon & Ward

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This month we have four relatively new names alongside an absolute giant of the genre. In surname order, take a look at:

THE HARVARD CURSE by MARTIN CHEVREAU

Three students disappear at the end of the 2019 autumn term at Harvard. The press dubs it ‘The Harvard Curse’ – but what has really happened? To solve this mystery, we must follow two of the young people, Clementine and Adrien in the months before they vanish – as the pair meet and run into a world of trouble together. Through the complicity of new and old friends alike, they disappear leaving a trail of evidence that readers must examine and decide who is to blame. A central character in this novel is the atmospheric  changing seasons of the New England university campus – a compelling backdrop to the tale as the secrets slowly reveal themselves. This is published by Book Guild and will be available on 28th August.

A HUNDRED YEARS TO ARRAS by J.M. COBLEY

This is not crime fiction, but as someone who is passionate about anything to do with The Great War, I couldn’t resist the chance to review it. It tells the tale of a young Somerset man who enlists to fight the Germans. On one level it is a chilling account of the mincing machine horror of WWI battles, but it also examines the profound links between landscape, history and memory. Check my tweets and main page for a full review. Available now, this book is published by Unbound Digital

THE CONSCRIPT by ALASTAIR B. DAVIE

This is the tale of an idealistic young man from 1940s northern England who is attracted to socialism after his own experience of poverty and hardship. He joins the Communist Party, is manipulated by unscrupulous Soviet agents, and feeds sensitive information to Stalin’s men. While Britain is, notionally, an ally of the Soviet Union, this is no problem, but when the war ends, and Europe is divided by political persuasion, Tom Pearson is faced with a totally different – and potentially deadly – conflict of interests. The Conscript is published by Book Guild and you can buy it here.

DEATH THREATS and other stories by GEORGES SIMENON

Georges Simenon is simply one of the giants of crime fiction. If ever a character could claim to be immortal, Jules Maigret (flanked, perhaps, by Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot) will be on the podium. This new collection of short stories is endorsed by the author’s son, John, and will delight all fans of The Master. Published by Penguin, this paperback will be out in September.

THE WRECKING STORM by MICHAEL WARD

We are in a turbulent England just before the outbreak of the English Civil War. As the chances of a peaceful resolution of the dispute between King and Parliament recede, Puritan radicals demand more concessions from the King. Bishops and lords are attacked in the streets as the Apprentice Boys run amok. Criminal gangs use the disorder to mask their activities while the people of London lock their doors and pray for deliverance.

No one is immune from the contagion. Two Jesuit priests are discovered in hiding and brutally executed – and soon the family of spice merchant Thomas Tallant is drawn into the spiral of violence. Thomas struggles to discover who is responsible, aided by the enigmatic Elizabeth Seymour, a devotee of science, mathematics and tobacco in equal measure. Together they enter a murky world of court politics, street violence, secret codes and poisoned letters, and confront a vicious gang leader who will stop at nothing to satisfy his greed. Published by Sharpe Books, The Wrecking Storm is available now.

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PAST TIMES – OLD CRIMES . . .The Little Man From Archangel by Georges Simenon

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Was Georges Simenon the greatest ever Belgian? He was certainly the most prolific both in his literary output and his apparently inexhaustible sexual appetite. Best known for his Maigret novels and short stories, he also wrote standalone novels. One such was Le Petit Homme d’Arkhangelsk, first published in English in 1957. This new edition, translated by Siân Reynolds (who is the former Chair of French at the University of Stirling) is, like most of Simenon’s books short – just 185 pages – but as powerful a story as he ever wrote.

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Little man013We are in an anonymous little town in the Berry region of central France, and it is the middle years  of the 1950s. Jonas Milk is a mild-mannered dealer in second hand books. His shop, his acquaintances, the café, bar and boulangerie he frequents are all like spokes of a wheel, and the hub is the bustling Vieux-Marché. Jonas appreciates his neighbours, such as Le Bouc behind the counter in his bar, Gaston Ancel the butcher, with his booming voice and bloodstained apron, and the Chaignes family in their grocery shop. Jonas values these people or, to be more precise, he values their acceptance of him, because he is an outsider. Sure, he has been in France since he was a small boy, his family – from the port on Russia’s White Sea coast – having sought refuge in France during the Revolution. They have all returned to their homeland, and Jonas does not know if they are alive or dead. He is also a Jew, but because of his fair hair and complexion he survived the attention of the Nazis during the Occupation.

Little man014 copyJonas Milk has a wife. Two years earlier he had converted to Catholicism and married Eugénie Louise Joséphine Palestri – Gina – a voluptuous and highly sexed woman sixteen years his junior. No doubt the frequenters of the Vieux-Marché have their views on this marriage, but they are polite enough to keep their opinions to themselves, at least when Jonas is within earshot. But then Gina disappears, taking with her no bag or change of clothing. The one thing she does take, however, is a selection of a very valuable stamp collection that Jonas has put together over the years, not through major purchases from dealers, but through his own obsessive examination of relatively commonplace stamps, some of which turn out to have minute flaws, thus making their value to other collectors spiral to tens of thousands of francs.

Gina has had her flings before, though, seeking physical excitement that Jonas does not provide. He has born his shame in silence, and it has never occurred to him to challenge her. This time, however, when he makes his morning purchases – his croissants, his cup of espresso – and is asked where Gina is, he makes a fatal mistake. Perhaps through embarrassment, or irritation perhaps, he tells a small lie.

“As a rule, Gina, in bedroom slippers, often with her hair uncombed, and sometimes wrapped in a flowery dressing gown, would do her shopping early on market days, before the crowd.
Jonas opened his mouth and it was then that, in spite of every instinct telling him not to, he changed the words he was going to say.
“She’s gone to Bourges.”

Four words. Each of them harmless on its own, but together, something entirely different . What happens next is a masterpiece of brilliant storytelling, as in just a few days, the world of Jonas Milk begins to unravel. Simenon’s ability to describe profound events while framing them with little inconsequential moments of observation – a blackbird pecking at crumbs in a back garden, a café owner turning his face away from the steam of his coffee machine, a wife not cleaning up the frying pan after cooking herrings – is astonishing.

You will probably read this book in a couple of sessions. Yes, it’s a short book, anyway, but my goodness, what an impact it makes. The Little Man From Archangel is published by Penguin Modern Classics, and is out on 1st April.

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