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The Strangers in the House

Last update - Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 11:21 By Metro Éireann

The Strangers in the House by George Simenon (New York Review Books)

The incredibly prolific French author Georges Simenon wrote about 400 books, 75 of which have Detective Maigret at their centre, and just by the sheer volume of his output one might well wonder if the notion of quantity over quality becomes an issue

However, Simenon is a highly regarded writer for whom many an author has nothing but praise. Indeed, he was considered for the Nobel Prize a good few times, although he never did receive that accolade. Yet it was the comparison of Simenon to one of my own heroes, Patricia Highsmith, which originally led me to him.

Browsing through a fairly slim collection in a Dublin bookshop I quickly settled on an intriguing-looking series of New York Review Books. I was hoping that I would be in for a huge treat, and one that would last me for a good while into the future.

The Strangers in the House, published in 1940, is one of Simenon’s so-called roman durs, or psychological thrillers, and also one among the books that he himself seems to have referred to as his more serious works. From the very start one is impressed by his attention to detail, and the ease with which he seems to create the book’s universe.

The protagonist is a former lawyer, Loursat, who has become an unkempt hermit in his own house, despite sharing it with his daughter and some servants. He barley sees the others, and they ignore his being as best they can, although the servants also despise him and make no bones about it.

Loursat’s life evolves around his wine, his cigarettes and his study. What others might think is of no concern. That is, until he finds a dead man in a room in his vast mansion. The shock of the discovery pushes Loursat back into reality, makes him think of his past, and see the people around him. Does he like what he finds? Well, to answer that would be to give the plot away!

I can see why people link Simenon to Highsmith, but with this book I found it no contest as to who is the more original writer. Simenon is said to have based all of his crime writing around real life cases, and although this is not a sign as to what is to ensue once in the hands of a creative writer, in this book (translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury) you certainly get a real sense of the grey and mundane, even through some of the stranger-than-fiction events.

Also, the manner in which Simenon deals with foreigners here made me feel quite uncomfortable – no matter the time in which the book was written, or perhaps because of it.

Maybe after the next book I might change my mind.

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