If you like Elmore Leonard, Hitchcock or Patricia Highsmith, you should enjoy this. It starts with a very simple sentence.
‘A man walking.’
No contrived drama or major event has occurred. A man is walking down a country road doing much to nothing. But the widow, Tati, sees him. He gets on the bus, see her, and when she steps off, after a nice bit of indecision, he gets off, offering to help her. And it’s from here that the spider begins to spin its web, so to speak.
‘It was odd: there were forty passengers, and only one of them, the widow Couderc, looked at the man any differently than you would have looked at just anybody. The rest were placid and quiet, as it might be cows in a meadow watching a wolf browsing in their midst without the least astonishment.’
George Simenon, the Belgium writer of the book, has an elegant, crisp writing style that keeps the pace moving nicely but unlike for example, Elmore Leonard, he makes very sharp observations about the characters and writes really wonderful, almost poetic, passages.
‘Twice, and twice only, in the whole of his life, had he known this innocent peace, once when he’d been ill and had ceased to consider school a reality; then again here, this very morning, as he strode towards the village and waited with the gossips behind the butcher’s van…’
The cast of characters is only a handful. There is little in the way of ‘backstory’ with the exception on Tati and Jean. The story keeps moving forward and rarely glances back over its shoulder. The chapters are short but not written in a contrived manner, ie they don’t end with ‘cliffhangers’ designed to make you turn the page.
“Jean’s first thought was that they could not remain there, standing among the potatoes, and he led her gently toward the shed, aimlessly still, and still without speaking. Then he kissed her once more and he saw that her eyes were closed, her neck of an unreal whiteness.”
My only reservation was that Jean’s remorse seems contrived and not that believable. He was sentenced to jail for a murder but you feel, and it’s hinted at several times, that he never experienced any genuine pain for this act. It’s only after his release, does this begin to eat at him.
A second related point to note is that while the book was often compared to Camus’ The Stranger in that they both dwell on ‘nothingness’, it feels slightly dated. Only slightly, by the way. However, like I said, I wasn’t convinced or moved by Jean, though maybe when this was written it resonated with the readers of the time. It was written in 1942 during the second world war.
Instead it is Tati, the aging widow, struggling against her late husband’s father’s advances, his family, and others that is the most compelling part of the novel. Tati is what glues the novel together. The other characters are simply that – props against which we can see her predicament.
The prose, even in translation, are far superior to other noir writers with the exception of Chandler.
The book is quite short. About 150 pages and contains lots of dialogue. Unlike Elmore Leonard the characters aren’t all ‘wiseguys’ with witty oneliners. Instead, it hints at their inner lives, their values, fears, and contractions. Some of it veers close to Stendhal and reminded me of The Red and The Black, another great read.
What’s interesting about the ending – I had the same feeling when watching Heat recently with Al Pacino – was that either of the main characters could have perished and it would still have worked.
I won’t spoil it for you and say what happens but… I’d have written it from a different angle. Read it and you’ll understand.
Reviews of the film version are here on Rotten Tomatoes.