In today's installment of our discussion of Georges Simenon's Engagement, Chad Post addresses Mark Binelli's comments on whether the book really subverts the expectations of the genre—Editor's note.
For any of you who haven't read the book yet, the part of John Gray's afterword that (I believe) Mark is referring to is his section on detective novels in which he states:
As has often been noted, the traditional detective novel is a morality tale in which any doubt we may have about the reality of the order in the world is finally dispelled.
Even in noir, Gray sees a “promise that wrongdoing is sure to be found out and punished,” but “there is none of this in Simenon.”
Whether or not there is a sort of moral to this book—short Jews should stay away from big mobs? Seems like good advice at least—is debatable, but to me, as someone who's read probably five mystery novels my entire life, this book didn't quite fit my expectations for a “detective novel,” which is what I liked about it.
I agree with Mark—the writing is utilitarian, sparse, and probably had to be, since Simenon wrote his novels at a blistering clip. And he seemed to have an “of the people” belief that the language in his books should be comprehensible to all. A sort of anti-literary stance, which may have hurt his reputation as a “great writer” (well, that and the fact that he wrote 400 plus books), but did get him a large readership.
But what strikes me most about the couple Simenon books I've read is how well suited his language is to his characters and plot. I have a similar feeling about Philip K. Dick—he wasn't a brilliant writer, but his writing was exactly what it had to be for his novels to work. And I feel the same about Simenon.
Rather than seeing this book as a subversion of the detective genre and its constraints, it seems to me that it's more of an atmospheric book or character study. It's as if Simenon's view of the world automatically included all the sordid, dark aspects of crime novels and that this is just the backdrop against which he exposes Hire's character. (In Red Lights, the feeling that the outside world is extremely dangerous is even much more palpable than in this book.) And although it's a very plot-heavy book, to me, it seems as if character revelation and plot points are inextricably connected in Simenon's writing.
The idea of subverting the detective genre brings to mind Michel Butor's Passing Time, which is a very literary book that plays around with these constraints in an interesting way. There are a number of expository sections about mystery novels, how they work, etc., in this book, including this conversation about what a detective accomplishes:
He cleanses the small fraction of the world from its offense, which was not so much the mere fact that one man has killed another (for there might be such a thing as pure murder, a kind of rejuvenation-sacrifice) but rather the defilement that murder brings with it, the bloodstained shadows that it casts about it, and at the same time that deep-seated, age-old discord which becomes incarnate in the criminal from the moment when, by his act, he revealed its presence and aroused those vast buried forces which now disturb the hitherto accepted order of things and betray its fragility.
What I like about Simenon's books is that they seem to exist in the “bloodstained shadows,” and there's no pretense that things can ever be put back into order.
Mark—I haven't read enough Simenon to answer your question with any degree of confidence, but I was wondering, are there any books you'd recommend that play around with the detective genre?