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Georges Simenon

ON MY SHELF . . . March 2022

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TALL BONES by Anna Bailey

Tall BonesWhatever other qualities the book may have, the name of the town in which it is set gets first prize for the most sinister sounding location – Whistling Ridge. You just know that this is a town with dark secrets and simmering tensions that have festered for generations. Throw in a charismatic hellfire preacher who seems to have the town in his thrall, a girl who inexplicably disappeared into the woods, and a mysterious outsider who fascinates the young folk but arouses deep resentment in their parents – and you have a crackerjack thriller. Published by Doubleday, Tall Bones is out on 1st April.

WHAT HIS WIFE KNEW by Jo Jakeman

WHWKA husband disappears, leaving only a one word scribbled note that says “Sorry“. As the police assume Oscar has committed suicide and put the case at the back of the file drawer, wife Beth is determined to find out the truth and, to re-use an old metaphor, when people turn over stones, they shouldn’t be dismayed at what they see scurrying about underneath. Expect elements of deceit, revenge and betrayal – with many a plot twist.  This is a Vintage publication, and is available now in audiobook, Kindle and paperback.

THE FATAL OATH by Michael L Lewis

TFOSchool stories, at least those written for younger readers, were once ‘a thing’ but something of a rarity these days. This book, the third in a series, is aimed at adult readers, and is set in 1957 within a boys’ boarding school in Yorkshire, and is centred on a Jewish teenager who is made to feel an outcast by senior boys who feel he is not “one of us“. His fate, and that of his friend, another ‘outsider’ is in the hands of a powerful clan of senior pupils who bully even the ineffectual school leadership team. The Fatal Oath will be available on 28th of March and is published by The Book Guild.

THE RETREAT by Sarah Pearse

RetreatSarah Pearse’s previous (and debut) novel The Sanatorium (click for review) was a huge commercial and critical success and now she returns with another psychological thriller based on the same theme – that of isolation, secrets, and mysterious death. There’s more than a touch of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels (choose the title you prefer!) here, as a group of people are stranded on an island retreat as a destructive storm prevents anyone leaving or arriving. It’s a case of “as soon as the weather clears..” but much can (and does) happen in the meantime! Published by Bantam Press, this will be available in July.

THE PEOPLE OPPOSITE by Georges Simenon

PeoplePenguin are publishing new translations of Simenon’s  stories. I’ve reviewed The Little Man From Archangel and Death Threats & Other Stories. This is another non-Maigret story, set in pre-war Russia, and tells the tale of Adil Bey, a lonely Turkish diplomat sent as consul to a dilapidated port on the Black Sea. He is viewed with suspicion by the locals, and when he develops a relationship with his Russian secretary, he soon learns that living in Stalin’s Russia as an outsider has many pitfalls. Translated by Sian Reynolds, this is a Penguin Classic, and is available now.

DEATH THREATS and other stories . . . Between the covers

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Penguin have been quietly publishing new translations of all the Maigret novels and short stories for the last few years, and this is a recent collection of stories. What more is there to say about Georges Simenon? For me, the genius is in the economy. He never wastes a line, never provides an unnecessary description, and never uses twenty words when ten will do. He remains, quite simply, the master story-teller.

Monsieur Owen

Maigret is on holiday. He has taken the opportunity because Madame Maigret is away in Brittany tending to an ailing aunt. He is in one of the best hotels in Cannes. Rather out of his price range? Perhaps, but he has a friend in the trade, Monsieur Louis, an man who was once one of the top hoteliers in Paris, and a man who owes Maigret a favour or two. The detective “had eaten like a horse, drunk like a sailor and soaked up the sun through every pore like a bathing belle.” But his reverie is interrupted when M. Louis knocks on his door to say there has been a terrible murder. A mysterious guest called Monsieur Owen has taken rooms in the hotel along with his attractive young nurse. And now, a body has been found, naked and dead, in the bath of Monsieur Owen’s room – but it is not Monsieur Owen! In the pages that follow, Simenon weaves a delightfully complex mystery – and Maigret provides an equally intricate solution. This was first published as a magazine story in 1938.

Cafe New

This is slightly unusual, as it was also first published in 1938, just seven years after Simenon introduced Maigret in Pietr-le-Letton, and yet in this story Maigret has retired after a long career with the Paris police, and is living in Meung-sur-Loire. He is grumpy and bored, so Madame Maigret persuades him to join a nightly card school in a town café. The men play Manille, a variant of Whist. It is a game for four players, and one of the group – the town butcher, a family man – is reputed to have eyes for Angèle, the café waitress. When the butcher is found dead in his van, killed by a bullet from a wartime revolver, everyone – including the young police inspector investigating the death – expects Maigret to take charge of the case. He refuses, quite churlishly, and retires to his shed to fuss over his fishing tackle. It is only some time later, when Maigret and his wife attend the funeral of the café owner’s wife, that he reveals the reason for his silence and, once again, Simenon gives us a beautifully symmetrical solution.

Man On

This was first published under the title Le prisonnier de la rue in the Sept jours newspaper (15th and 22nd December 1940). It is worth noting at this point that Simenon remained in France during the  occupation but none of the Maigret stories set during the war references the German presence. Operating as a civilian policeman in wartime Paris would have been a very different experience from what we read here. What the papers are calling THE BAGATELLE MURDER because the body – of a handsome young Viennese doctor –  was found near La Porte der Bagatelle is puzzling Maigret and his  trusty team, Torrence, Lucas and Janvier. Eventually, they identify a suspect, and take it in turns to follow him through the streets of a wintry Paris. The man – identified as a Pole – becomes more haggard and hungry as his money runs out until, exhausted and desperate, he surrenders to Maigret. Simenon gleefully lets us know that the killing was un crime passionelle but then pulls the rug out from under our feet as he reveals who fired the fatal shot.

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Maigret is working as the head of the Nantes Flying Squad, and he is summoned south to a God-forsaken village in a marshy area of the Vendée. Groux, A farmer down on his luck, has been forced to sell his property and has arranged a Candle Auction (click the link for an explanation) in the local inn, run by former criminal Frédéric, his slatternly wife Julia and barmaid Thérèse. During a lengthy card game on the evening preceding the auction, one of the prospective bidders – Bourchain – is found dead in his bed, his head ruined by blows from a hammer, and his wallet – containing the thousands of francs with which he intended to buy the farm – missing. Maigret creates his own version of the classic locked room mystery by re-assembling the participants in the card game, and painstakingly forces them to re-enact every card played, every break for drinks and every trip to the toilet until he discovers who wielded the coal hammer that shatters Bourchain’s head. Not for the first time, we play cherchez la femme. This was first published in serial form in 1942.

Death Threrats

A wealthy (to the tune of three million francs) rag and bone man, Emile Grosbois has requested a meeting with Maigret’s boss, and has produced a letter composed of words cut from a newspaper. It is a threatening prediction that Grosbois will be dead before before 6.00pm on the following Sunday. The Grosbois family – Emile, twin brother Oscar, their widowed sister Françoise and her two grown-up children Eliane and Henri – live on the premises of the scrap yard, but travel down to their riverside home outside Paris every weekend. Maigret is told he must join the family for the duration of the fateful weekend, and if the great man ever suffered a more miserable few days, Simenon never told us about it. The tensions between the disfunctional family simmer and burn until – just before the doom hour of 6.00pm – Maigret must intervene to save a man’s life and, in doing so, unmask the would-be murderer. This was first published, in serial form, as Menaces de Mort in 1942.

THIS COLLECTION WAS TRANSLATED BY ROS SCHWARZ,
PUBLISHED BY PENGUIN, AND IS AVAILABLE HERE

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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