In a way I spent November getting over reading Christina Stead. For Love Alone is a big, old-fashioned novel that’s not afraid to move slowly, and be dense, all the better to throw up bright shards of insight. I can’t quite remember why I picked up PD James. It was one of those moments when a new book (a charity shop find) skips to the top of the to-be-read pile, ahead of other, possibly worthier, certainly more patient and long-suffering novels. So far as I tell, this is the first book of hers I’ve read. I’m not a massive reader of classic detective thrillers: Chandler, Ellroy, Hammett, Mankell, Rankin and Christie are probably the only authors I’ve read multiple books by – and Simenon of course, but we’ll get to him in a moment.
Teaching creative writing means thinking a lot about plot, and there is no genre more concerned with that aspect of the novel than the murder mystery. In November I also rewatched the Gary Oldman Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and that led me, as with the last two watches, to pick back up the le Carré novel. It does open brilliantly, but once the plot proper gets going it seems to settle into a linear plod towards the truth, as Smiley heads across town, from encounter to encounter, picking up clue after clue, rather like a character in a dull 1980s text-based computer game. I put the book back down.
James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman avoids this through having the distinctly odd device of the protagonist, the young private detective Cordelia Gray, actually moving into the cottage where the murder took place, to live, while she investigates.
This surprising gambit means that Gray doesn’t need to traipse after witnesses and suspects, although she does a fair bit of that: she can wait for them to come to her, drawn by the smell of death left behind by promising young Cambridge student Mark Callender when he hangs himself (or does he?) after throwing up his studies to work as a gardener. The use of Mark’s cottage as a central location is a masterstroke: Gray feels her way into the case by sleeping in the dead man’s bed, cooking with his saucepans and finishing digging his vegetable patch.
The novel was published in 1972 – the year of my birth! – but in no way seems dated. James’s writing is not exactly hardboiled, but it proceeds at an appropriate pace: a fast, determined walk on short, powerful legs. Narrative in a classic detective story is elegantly functional: the detective must move about, must observe and collect details, ask questions, listen to people’s answers; they don’t have to come to any judgments until the end of the book. There will surely be themes, and subplots, but these will be woven into the fabric. They will not upend or overtake the central thrust of the drama, which is the uncovering of the truth and, almost incidentally, the revelation of the criminal. James’s Gray is equal to the demands of the form: she is an admirable hero: intelligent, unsentimental, brave and resourceful – almost lovable, if she would only let herself be loved.
Later in the month, as it happened, I went on something of a Maigret jag. I’m reviewing A Maigret Christmas (review forthcoming) and wanted to dip into a couple of the books to get myself in the mood. They are perennial favourites, the Maigrets more than the ‘romans durs’. I love their calm pace, their placidity. (Serial killers are rare in Maigret, and it is serial killers that have ruined detective thrillers – the race against time to catch the criminal Before He Kills Again spoils the pleasure of the puzzle.)
But also I love the constant use of the telephone (Maigret doesn’t always have to traipse after witnesses; he gets his inferiors to do it for him); I love the drinks that are always being sent up from the Brasserie Dauphine; I love the way Maigret gradually becomes a celebrity – the barman’s wife in Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife wants to know if it’s really him when he drops in for a brandy. I love Mme Maigret, too, of course – more on that in my review of the Christmas book.
I suppose what I love above all is the books’ simplicity, their functionality: this is police procedural par excellence. There is compassion not just for the victims of the crime, but for those caught up in it. Crime here is not a radical intrusion into an otherwise ordered existence (as in PD James and Agatha Christie and the like), but rather a constant background to everyday life, a permanent inconvenience that sometimes bubbles over into something truly awful. But it doesn’t seem to glamorise that milieu, which I suppose you could say is the legacy of the American hardboileds. In Simenon there is no sensationalism, no overweening social message. You can’t even really call Maigret dogged; he is just… patient. If he is confident, then it is not so much in his own abilities, as in the primacy of reason, that it is more powerful than the disruptive power of criminality.
I read two of them: Maigret at Picratt’s, 1951, in a new translation by William Hobson, and Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife, 1953, intrigued by its original translation by the infamous Soho bookman Julian Maclaren-Ross. There is a story that Maclaren-Ross wanted to do a translation of Simenon in true English vernacular, but if that is so it doesn’t really have much impact, for me. It reads little different from the other original translations, bar the odd slang word.
And, much as it pains me to say it, while I applaud Penguin’s decision to commission all new translations as part of their grand projet of reissuing every Simenon book, I’ve rarely found anything to complain about with the old ones. As it happens, I’m currently reading The Blue Room, one of the ‘romans durs’ that I have in both old and new versions, and really there is very little to choose between them. Take these examples, chosen at random. (Not particularly exciting paragraphs, but then not-particularly-exciting is Simenon’s stock-in-trade.)
The house, to his left, was half-way down a slope, with a garden all round, and a field separating it from the old grey house with the slate roof where the Molard sisters lived. Beyond was the blacksmith’s, and then, a hundred yards lower down, the village, with proper streets, terraced houses, little cafés and shops. The local people did not call it a village: to them it was a market-town, a large market-town of sixteen thousand inhabitants, not to mention the three adjoining hamlets.
Halfway up a hill on the left was his house, surrounded by its garden, separated by a field from the old, grey slate-roofed house of the Molard sisters. Beyond it were the smithy and finally, a hundred metres further down the road, the village, with real streets, terrace houses, shops and small cafés. The local people preferred to call it a market town, however, a large one of 1,600 inhabitants, not counting the three adjoining hamlets.
The first of those is from the 1965 translation by Eileen Ellenbogen, the second from Linda Coverdale’s 2015 version. Yes, the new one is better, but only slightly so: there is nothing majorly wrong with the first one. To my mind it’s no more ‘difficult’ or dated in its syntax than PD James. (Is Simenon “one of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century” – The Guardian, as it suggests in the publicity for the new reissues? Well… I mean to say, maybe, but still…)
What is dated, sad to say, is the gratuitous homophobia in Maigret at Picratt’s, that seems to attach to both Maigret and his creator. Here is Maigret interrogating Philippe, a suspect and a drug-addict.
‘Do you like men?’
Deep down, like all fairies, he was proud of it, and an involuntary smile formed on his unnaturally red lips. Maybe getting told off by real men turned him on.
Later, he is described as looking to Maigret like “an insect”, and he even considers that, if he happens to end up falling victim to the book’s killer, it wouldn’t be “such a great loss”. That’s painful to read from a character who has a longstanding and mostly justified reputation for compassion, for siding with the underdog. Compare this to the fellow feeling for the ‘ordinary’, ‘working class’ burglars and prostitutes that populate the books.
(I’ve also been dipping into Simenon’s odd memoir-of-sorts, When I Was Old, taken from a series of notebook journals written in the early 1960s, when the writer was in his late fifties. There’s little of real interest in it. No great revelations. What he has read (preferring, in order: the Russians, the English, the Americans, the French) and reads now (medical journals: Maigret wanted to be a doctor); the houses he has lived in; his opinions about Algeria, about sex… of them more or less as you’d expect.)
I’m running out of steam right now, so let’s just add to our pile for the month Owen Booth’s hilarious and painful What We’re Teaching Our Sons (Owen is a friend from years ago, from before either of us were serious about writing), and David Keenan’s This is Memorial Device, which I’ve only partly read. It’s great fun, the best Trainspotting-style novel since Trainspotting, structurally speaking. I’m not entirely sure I need the story of the Airdrie post-punk scene, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read. (It’s also true that I recognise what Keenan is trying to do – indeed, succeeding in doing. This idea of inventing a music scene and making it seem real in multiple dimensions, not just the obvious stuff, the track listings etc… this was crucial to what I was trying to do with my YBA novel Randall. Perhaps I’m less ready to fully give myself over to the novel because I essentially spent three or four years trying to do something similar. I see the workings so clearly, I find it hard to enjoy the experience, excellent though the book is.)
And the Tutuola is there to represent the constant flow of short stories from my Personal Anthology, now 15 months old, with over 50 ‘guest editors’ having picked over 650 stories by over 400 different authors. Tutuola’s story ‘Don’t Pay Bad for Bad’ was picked by Lara Pawson in her dozen, and it was good to read that, as it was good to go on a brief Hemingway jag after Sam Jordison’s Papa-themed selection. If you don’t know the project, then find out more at the archive website apersonalanthology.com and sign up for the weekly email here.
All books this month were bought by me, possibly apart from one of the new Penguins, courtesy of Penguin.