September 07, 2016

The Crime Lady #063: Being Old, Being Young


I've been on a Georges Simenon mini-kick lately. I had read an assortment of Maigret novels over the years but the sheer size of his backlist -- 500 novels, even if many of the novels barely top 150 pages -- daunted me, and those Maigrets I did read were, quite frankly, easy to digest and all the easier to forget. Looking for the quality needles in a quantity haystack seemed more arduous than necessary.

But then I read Dirty Snow, Simenon's 1948 roman dur that truly is as good as advertised, as well other durs like The Blue Room (1963), The Mahe Circle (1944), and M. Hire's Engagement (1933). And over the weekend I ripped through his 1970 memoir When I Was Old, a (seemingly revised) collection of his notebook jottings between 1960 and 1962, at a time when he said he felt the onslaught of older age upon him and became fearful over a decline in productivity, "only" able to produce 3-4 novels a year rather than the dozen (or, in his pseudonymous pulp days of the 1920s, several dozens) that was his habit.

It is strange and at times brilliant and, like Simenon himself, infuriating and unreliable. But this time he seems to acknowledge his own maddening inability to be fully honest, admitting to lies of omission about his sexual habits, his stormy relationship with his second wife D. (for Denyse Ouimet, who went from secretary to lover to wife, suffered alcoholic breakdowns, and ultimately railed against being replaced by his last companion in work and life, Teresa Subrelin, to the point of writing a tell-all that I want to read but also feel nervous to read), his inconsistent view of himself as a craftsman writing for money and an artist deserving of the Nobel Prize, and a boundless need to rail against journalists even as he craves their attention and the publicity. By the end I was exhausted.

When I Was Old also has distinction for its English translator, Helen Eustis. By the time the English edition appeared in 1971, Eustis had given up on writing fiction (Simenon, oddly, would follow in 1973.) She had careened into alcoholic and drug-addicted despair, supporting her and her son through odd freelance writing gigs and translation. And I wonder, in light of my own arguments with the book, how much Eustis herself felt the need to be combative with Simenon as she translated.

Did he remind Eustis of her feckless first husband, Alfred Fisher, father of her child, previous husband to MFK Fisher, and notorious womanizer, especially of students? Did Simenon's compulsive need to be prolific contrast sharply with Eustis's near-opposite ability to complete projects, her literary career limited to two novels for adults, another for children, a short story collection, and translation work? We'll never know. But if there was an extra edge to the English translation of When I Was Old, I'd like to think it owed to the sharp personality and dark humor on display in Eustis's splendid debut novel The Horizontal Man, which is of course included in the 1940s volume of Women Crime Writers.

And I do plan to make my way through more of Simenon's roman durs even as I suspect they will thrill and irritate me in equal parts.

(The photo above is of Simenon sandwiched between his first wife Tigy and Josephine Baker, the great entertainer whom he, well into their affair, apparently thought about marrying but fretted about a future as "Mr. Baker", so that ended that.)

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Jacob Wetterling is no longer missing. His body was positively identified by Minnesota police last Saturday, and after 27 years, his family has an answer -- not closure, never closure, I loathe that word as applied to missing persons, anyone in media who uses it that way should be excommunicated -- and some semblance of an ending. His kidnapper and killer has described, in wrenching detail, what happened and how utterly senseless such crimes are. ("What did I do wrong?" My god. So simple, so gutting.)

I'm upset about this story because Wetterling's kidnapping haunted my childhood, the circumstances being so bizarre and frightening, and because of the obvious guilt his brother and friend had to live with thereafter. But I'm also upset because it's about to become clear just how much of a systemic failure this was on the part of small town police forces all across central Minnesota.

Wetterling's killer preyed on boys in Paynesville and kidnapped another in Cold Spring (but let him live.) People spoke up about the connections as early as 1990. And yet, nothing until a blogger named Joy Baker started making those connections public and more tangible. Give her credit. Give credit to Patty Wetterling who personified grace throughout and who, with her family, should take all the time to heal. Give credit to those who never stopped searching. And hope we get answers about why Jacob Wetterling had to die, and why it took so long to find out.

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It has been ages since I've done a newsletter link roundup so here are a few choice pieces that merit attention:

Chris Goffard's LAT six-part serial "Framed" was wildly popular and widely shared last week, but if by some chance you missed it, catch up immediately. It's phenomenal. Then go buy a copy of his standout crime novel Snitch Jacket. I ought to reread it myself.

In Canada, if you are part of a murder-suicide, the RCMP keeps the news out of the public eye. That might make sense from a privacy standpoint but for grieving families who want their loved ones acknowledged as murder victims, not so much. Jana Pruden (whose work, now based at the Globe & Mail, is uniformly excellent) probes the infuriating conundrum.

I know I have raved about The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, a 1937 novel by "Cameron McCabe" that is as much post-modern detective curiosity as it is the vehicle for an improbable backstory. The book's been reissued in the UK (will someone do the same over here??) and Jonathan Coe fills us in on this mind-bender of a novel.

Nan Talese is a publishing legend and Kerri Arsenault's interview really shows us how and why she became so venerated - because all she wants to do, ultimately, is sit under a tree and read.

Another lost Donald Westlake novel! And this one had its roots in a treatment for a James Bond film.

Are you on the fence about reading Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel? Maybe you won't after reading Michelle Dean's review.

Literary awards season is now upon us, starting with the Giller Prize longlist (a list I happen to think is pretty ststellar. Zoe Whittall! Mona Award! Madeleine Thien! More books I will need to read!)

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That's it for this week. Next week is Bouchercon in New Orleans. I plan to eat and drink and be merry with friends and see this great city for the very first time. I also moderate a panel on Thursday afternoon (4:30-5:20) on domestic suspense - quelle surprise -- and look forward to what Carla Buckley, Rebecca Drake, Karen Katchuer, Kate Moretti, and Sharon Potts have to say on this increasingly popular subgenre. See you there if you plan to attend!