The author of the Inspector Maigret crime novels made a bid for literary greatness with another of his so-called romans durs, The Snow was Dirty, which was first published in 1948. Many afficionados of the great Belgian writer regard the 290-page novel as his masterpiece.
And always the dirty snow, the heaps of snow that look rotten, with black patches and embedded garbage ... unable to cover the filth. In The Snow was Dirty – originally published in the original French as La Neige était Sale - nineteen-year-old Frank is a petty thief and the son of a brothel-owner who grows up in the house of ill-repute itself. He gazes at the whores with their clients by standing on a table and peering in through the transom.
Not the best start in life, as it were. Living in a snowbound city under military occupation, he falls under the spell of the psychopathic murderer Kromer. Entranced by the knife Kromer shows him, Frank borrows the blade, hides in a bank of snow and duly kills a passing police officer. He has no idea who the man is, he just wants to get better acquainted with the knife. He wants “to feel what it was like when it . . . slipped between bones.”
John Banville – long a champion of Simenon – deems The Snow Was Dirty `an astonishing work' while The New Yorker declares it to be 'among the best novels of the twentieth century.' This new translation of Simenon's novel is not for the faint-hearted, given its protagonist’s twisted ways and propensity for casual violence.
In fact, a keen Maigret fan, known to your reviewer, decided to take a sabbatical from The Snow Was Dirty. We haven’t checked whether he has come back to the yarn, and if he concluded his reading of the brutal tale with smelling salts to hand as he reads this new translation by Howard Curtis.
Interestingly, the story was written soon after the author received news of the death of his younger brother, Christian, who was killed on deployment with the French Foreign Legion in Vietnam.
For fans of the more staid, reassuring tales of the sane yet enigmatic Inspector Maigret, the grand Penguin reissue fest continues, also in the Penguin Classics category. One of the recent arrivals- the 36th in the series in fact - is the little black (186-page) number, Maigret at Picratt’s, first published in 1951 and previously translated into English under the title, Maigret and the Strangled Stripper. A young cabaret dancer named Arlette - attired in, yes, a black silk dress - leads the doughty policeman into a world of creepy nightclubs - one of them Picratt's - in a seamy Montmartre (before the tourist prettification.)
Arlette has overheard two men discussing a plot to murder a countess and has decided to report it. The police don’t set much store by her claim until a few hours later, she is found strangled to death in her room. The police search for the men in question, until the following day, the Countess von Farnheim, a drug addict living not far from Picratt’s, is found strangled. When Arlette’s own identity turns out to have been falsified, Inspector Maigret steps in to get to the bottom of this murky affair, before the killers can slip away.
He opened the door for her and watched her walk away down the huge corridor, then hesitate at the top of the stairs. Heads turned as she passed. You sensed she came from a different world, the world of the night, and there was something almost indecent about her in the harsh light of a winter’s day.