Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Red Lights by Georges Simenon

He called it "going into the tunnel," an expression of his own, for his private use, which he never used in talking to anyone else, least of all to his wife.
Opening sentence, Red Lights.

Georges Simenon was once the best selling author in the world. In the 1930's he was a writer of pulp fiction but once he began writing detective stories featuring Inspector Maigret, he became famous under his own name. He wrote over 100 Maigret stories along with a series of Roman durs, novels depicting the psychological anxiety that lays under the surface of everyday routine.

His novel Red Lights is based on the opening scene in Hardy's Mayor of Castorbridge. In each a man has an alcohol fueled argument with his wife that ends in abandoning her to the hands of another. In each the man comes to regret his actions.

Red Lights is set in 1950's New York, among the set of people who could afford to send their children to summer camps in Maine. Steve and Nancy Hogan are on their way to pick up their children at the end of summer when Steve decides to stop at a roadside tavern for a drink. (It's the 1950's...there was a lot of drinking.) He argues with Nancy who threatens to take the car and drive on alone. Steve takes the keys from the ignition to teach her a lesson. When he later returns to the car Nancy is gone, a note left on the windshield informing him that she decided to take the bus to Maine.

Steve regrets the argument and his actions. He gets in the car to look for the bus but soon becomes lost. He again stops in a roadside bar where he meets a man on the run from the law. Steve knows from the television broadcast in the previous bar that the man is an escaped convict but he decides to strike up a conversation with him anyway. Surely this man, Steve thinks, is a man unhindered by obligations to society, to work, to women and family. In his drunken state Steve is attracted to this and to the idea that he too could be a man among men such as this.

After they leave the bar, the convict forces Steve to drive him northwards toward Canada. While there is a gun at his back, Steve is far from reluctant. He helps the convict sneak through a police roadblock and probably would have taken the convict all the way to Canada had the car not suffered a blow-out. Steve drinks all night long, the book takes place in a single 24 hour period, and passes out beside the road. When he comes to he sees that he is at a junction next to a repair shop and roadside diner. He is alone; the convict is gone. Since the diner has a bus stop, Steve asks the waitress inside if she has seen his wife. She shows him an article in the newspaper. A woman fitting his wife's description was attacked alongside the road that night. She is in the hospital recovering. Was his wife attacked by the convict, Steve wonders.

While Simenon's books are about profound psychological issues and his characters motivated by complex and conflicting emotions, his writing style is always accessible. He deliberately used a basic vocabulary so that all of the people he wrote about would be able to read his books. Red Lights is no exception. Steve Hogan's descent "into the tunnel" makes for compelling reading; Simenon was once a writer of pulp thrillers and his skills are well used here. Steve's story is one that lays close to the surface, just underneath the skin of ordinary life. How many people have argued with their partner while travelling, enough to stop the car and have a drink with a stranger, enough to think about stopping the car. It's this ability to find situations his readers can identify with that make is possible for Simenon's psychological novels to get under the skin as well as the do.


savidgereads said...

I haven't heard of this book or this author before, but I will definately be looking out for these now.

I am going to look at books written in the 1930's more and more in the forthcoming months as its one of my favourite periods in history.

Teresa said...

This book has been on my list for years, but I had no idea that it was inspired by Mayor of Casterbridge. I'm a bit of a Thomas Hardy nut, and Mayor was the first Hardy novel I ever read, so now I really want to read this one. Thanks for reviewing it!

C. B. James said...

Savidgereads, This one takes place in the 1950's. Simenon seems to have a growing reputation once again. NYRB Publishers are bringing more of his work out in reissues.

Teresa, I wouldn't say it's inspired by Mayor of Castorbridge. They share the same basic premise in their opening scenes, but I have no idea if Simenon was a fan of Hardy or not.

It's a very good thriller in any case.

ds said...

Simenon's Maigret stories were wonderful! This sounds very much like Stephen King--do you suppose Simenon was a King influence?

Rose City Reader said...

This sounds great! When did he write it?

I am so glad I found your blog -- through your Booking Through Thursday post -- because I like reviews of older books.

C. B. James said...

ds, I know that Stephen King is a major reader and that he reads very widely, but I've no idea if he's read Simenon or not. I wouldn't be surprised if he has.

Rose City Reader, Glad you stop by. I hope you'll become a regular. I do read and review a lot of older books.

Thomas said...

I haven't read this one, but his book Dirty Snow was pretty fascinating for some of the same reasons you mention here.

C. B. James said...

Dirty Snow is terrific. Red Lights is much more accessible,though. The main character in Dirty Snow is so extreme that he's a bit hard to identify with. I found the main character in Red Lights hit much closer to home. I could see myself at least thinking about doing what he does. Dirty Snow was like reading about someone I would never possible become.