Red Lights by Georges Simenon (tr. Norman Denny)

What prompts a seemingly ordinary conventional man to embark upon a path of self-destruction, to the exclusion of those closest to him, until his actions end in near-inevitable catastrophe? This is the theme Simenon mines in his 1955 novella Red Lights. Like Three Bedrooms in Manhattan and The Widow (which I read last year), Red Lights is another of this author’s romans durs, the ‘hard’ novels of which he was particularly proud. It is a tight, claustrophobic read, one that would suit lovers of vintage noir or crime fiction with a strong psychological edge.

The book opens on the Friday evening of the Labor Day weekend; the time is the early 1950s. Steve Hogan and his wife, Nancy, are preparing to drive from their home in Long Island to Maine, New England to pick up their children from summer camp. It is clear from the outset that there are tensions in this marriage, some of which are bubbling just under the surface while others remain repressed somewhere in Steve’s psyche. Before the couple leave for Maine, Steve sneaks out for a quick drink under the pretext of filling up the car with gas. There is a sense that Nancy knows what he is getting up to, but she declines to say anything before they set off on their trip. On the road, the couple get caught in a storm and heavy traffic, the latter an inevitable development given the forty-five million motorists predicted to be driving at some point over the holiday weekend. Consequently, the tension starts to build…

He was not shaken by the accident reports, not alarmed. What got on his nerves was the incessant hum of wheels on either side of him, the headlights rushing to meet him every hundred yards, and also the sensation of being caught in a tide, with no way of escaping either to right or to left, or even of driving more slowly, because his mirror showed a triple string of lights following bumper-to-bumper behind him. (p. 13)

Desperate for another drink, Steve pulls over at a roadside bar under the guise of needing the men’s room while Nancy stays in the car. Back at the wheel after a swift double, Steve takes a wrong turn, gets frustrated as a result and seems keen to start a quarrel. Nancy, for her part, remains calm and composed. She is a practical, level-headed woman, self-confident and efficient; but as far as Steve sees it, Nancy has to be right about everything.

She didn’t order him about, actually, but she arranged their life in her own way, as though it were the natural thing to do. He was wrong. He knew he was wrong. Whenever he had had a drink or two he saw her differently, becoming annoyed by things that ordinarily he took for granted. (p. 10)

Things take a turn for the worse when Steve decides to stop at another bar, leaving Nancy by herself in the car for the second time – this despite the fact that she has threatened to continue the journey to Maine without him if he goes in. As a consequence, Steve takes the ignition key with him just to spite her. When he returns to the car some fifteen minutes later, Steve finds a note from Nancy to say she is going on ahead by bus. After a frantic attempt to intercept his wife on the Greyhound heading toward Providence, he gets lost again, thereby abandoning all plans to catch up with the bus in the process.

By now, Steve is tanked and very annoyed with Nancy, sick of having to play by her rules all the time. In this heightened state of mind, he goes ‘into the tunnel’, an intense mental fugue he experiences every now and again, a mood characterised by feelings of solitude, frustration and alienation.

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. He knew exactly what it meant, and what it was like to be in the tunnel; yet, curiously, when he was there he never allowed himself to admit the fact, except for occasional brief instants, and always too late. As for determining the precise moment when he entered it, he had often tried to do this afterwards, but never with success. (p. 5)

Stopping at yet another bar, Steve latches on to a solitary drinker, offloading to him about Nancy and women in general. In the midst of his drunken fugue state, Steve is keen to demonstrate that he is a real man, someone who know how to live life ‘off the tracks’, unconstrained by the woman of the household and the conventions of society. Unfortunately for Steve, his uncommunicative drinking partner turns out to be Sid Halligan, a dangerous criminal on the run following a breakout from Sing Sing Penitentiary. Somehow or other, Halligan ends up in Steve’s car, a development which leads our protagonist into very dangerous territory. I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Halligan’s appearance on the scene has lasting consequences for both Steve and Nancy.

Red Lights is a very gripping piece of noir, harrowing and brutal in its sensibility. Simenon maintains an atmosphere of simmering tension throughout, which gives the story the feel of a white-knuckle ride as Steve attempts to deal with his demons both internal and external. In many respects, it reads like a cross between a classic James M. Cain noir (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and a Richard Yates novel – something like Disturbing the Peace, a book which features an alcoholic protagonist, a rather tragic figure who seems powerless to prevent his own descent into a self-destructive state of despair. As the narrative of Red Lights unfolds, we learn a little more about the nature of Steve’s day-to-day life with Nancy. As the one left to take care of the children for an hour or two after work, Steve clearly feels somewhat inferior to Nancy, particularly considering her importance to her prestigious employers. It is this underlying sense of frustration, together with an annoyance at having to constantly win his wife’s approval, which catalyses Steve’s abusive behaviour on this fateful night.

Because when Bonnie and Dan weren’t in camp, that is to say, during the greater part of the year, it was not Nancy who got home early to look after them; it was he. Because in her office she was a person of importance, the right hand of Mr. Schwartz, head of the firm of Schwartz & Taylor, who came between ten and eleven in the morning and had a business lunch nearly every day, after which he worked till six or seven in the evening.

[…]

On the stroke of five he, Steve, was free. He could make a dash for the Lexington Avenue subway station, get wedged in the crush, and at Brooklyn, sprint for the bus that stopped at the end of their lot.

Altogether it didn’t take more than three quarters of an hour, and he would find Ida, the coloured girl who minded the children when they got back from school, with her hat on already. Her time must be valuable too. Everybody’s time was valuable. Everybody’s except his own… (pp. 29-30)

The more I think about this novella, the more compelling it feels in spite of the brutality – this is not a book for the sensitive or fainthearted. My only hesitation relates to the plausibility of the path to redemption sketched out towards the end of the story, something which is difficult to discuss without revealing spoilers. Nevertheless, this is a fairly minor reservation. There is a depth/intensity to the various emotions explored here – not only during the night itself but in the hours that follow. The sense of place feels incredibly authentic too. Simenon perfectly captures the seedy atmosphere and sense of agitation in the roadside bars, the way the regulars remain watchful, sizing up any outsiders in the process.

All in all, this is a very affecting noir. Not always a comfortable read, but a gripping one for sure.

Red Lights is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

43 thoughts on “Red Lights by Georges Simenon (tr. Norman Denny)

  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Wow, this reads like a compelling road movie and had me remembering that scene in Baghdad Cafe, when a wife abandons her husband roadside, though thankfully it wasn’t quite the psychological thriller that this sounds! All these characters so in need of therapy and healing, not sure I want to hang out with Steve and Nancy for now, but a riveting review. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. Yes, some counselling and healing certainly wouldn’t got amiss here. I suspect if this story were set in modern times both Steve and Nancy would be in therapy – whether or not that would solve their problems is another matter altogether…

      Funnily enough, this novella was made into a film back in 2004: Feux Rouges/Red Lights, directed by the French film-maker Cedric Kahn. The setting was transposed to France but the core of the plot remained broadly the same. I vaguely remember seeing it when it came out but my memories are a little sketchy now. Time for a re-watch, I think!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is gripping but very sobering, especially once the full extent of Halligan’s actions becomes clear. One to bear in mind for the future, perhaps.

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        I’ve checked out the film reviews too and saw that they had been planning to adapt it since the book came out in the 1950s – talk about the longest planning period!

        Reply
  2. Jonathan

    This does sound like a good read. I haven’t actually read any Simenon yet but the comparison to Yates is appealing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It would be a good one to try if you’re in the mood for something dark and disturbing. He’s a fine writer, still underrated I feel in spite of the Maigret books. There are some definite parallels with Yates here, especially in terms of the frustrations experienced by Steve. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the argumentative protagonist in Disturbing the Peace and the way he was constantly spoiling for a fight with his wife. Not my favourite Yates, but still well worth reading.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Great review Jacqui.

    This sounds so good. The interplay between Steve and Nancy sounds so good. Having known some self destructive people like Steve this sounds very realistic.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It does seem pretty realistic, especially given the period and setting. Part of the problem stems from the fact that Steve feels inferior to Nancy, a sort of crisis of masculinity in some respects – hence the need for him to flex his muscles in the relationship. It must have been a difficult time for many men back in the ’50a as women’s roles and expectations in life began to change.

      Reply
  4. Lady Fancifull

    I seem, for some reason, to be on a bit of a crime fiction roll at the moment – a bit too much going on for more challenging literary fare. But well-written is of course paramount, in with compulsive page-turning. I think the only Simenon I ever read was one (probably ‘adapted and simplified’) for English students of French taking O levels. You have made this sound very interesting indeed (and I shall, sadly, not be assaying it in the original language!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I often turn to crime fiction as a wind-down read, especially if I’m coming off the back of a run of complex or intricate novels. As you say, the quality of the writing is paramount, and that’s where authors like Simenon, Chandler and Ross Macdonald score for me – they’re all very firmly in literary territory. I would love to able to read Simenon in the original language, but sadly my French isn’t up to scratch either!

      Reply
  5. Cathy746books

    The more I read about Simenon, the more I wish I had some of his work. I love the sound of this, particularly the comparison to Yates and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, there’s always the library! Joking aside, I think you’d really enjoy Simenon’s work, especially these darker, psychologically-minded novellas. There is something very compelling about them…

      Reply
  6. Maureen Murphy

    Wow! What a bracing counterpoint to Wharton and Pym. If you care to push ever deeper into the noirist of noir (and this is something that is not to everyone’s taste, for sure) you might want to check out Jim Thompson. “The Killer Inside Me” is incredibly powerful, but I had to put it down at times and come back later. I also enjoyed the biography of Jim Thompson by Robert Polito.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It certainly is! Variety is the spice of life and all that. Much as I adore Pinot Noir, I couldn’t drink it every day without getting a bit tired or jaded. It’s kind of the same with books.

      I’ve read a couple of books by Thompson – The Grifters and The Getaway – both very good. That said, I get the feeling that The Killer Inside me is in a different league – more brutal and unforgiving, perhaps. It’s definitely on my list for the future.

      Reply
  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review as always Jacqui. Simenon’s non-Maigret titles are much darker but the ones I’ve read have been very good. Different territory to the usual Parisian crime novels, but very powerful stuff!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, indeed – I see to recall you recommending Monsieur Monde Vanishes at some point in the past. No worries about that erroneous ‘e’ by the way – I’ve just tweaked your comment. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a good one, isn’t it? What goes around comes around…

      I saw the film when it came out in 2004, but a re-watch wouldn’t go amiss especially now that I’ve read the book. Cedric Kahn (the director) is an interesting chap. I caught him in another film at the London Film Festival last year – After Love, where he play a guy going through a tense break-up with his partner of several years. It’s definitely worth a shot if you haven’t seen it already.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can understand that, Ratih. Of the two, Red Lights is the better book – but Three Bedrooms is Manhattan is interesting on account of its link to Simenon’s own relationship with Denise Ouimet.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Much as I enjoy a Maigret as a wind-down read every now and again, I think I prefer his romans durs. There is something endlessly fascinating about these stories that explore the darker sides of the human psyche.

      Reply
  8. Scott W

    I loved this little novel, its tension ratcheted up by each drink and each stop along the road. I’d also had no knowledge of Simenon’s “American” novels until finding this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I wouldn’t say I loved this book — for some reason, ‘love’ doesn’t quite fit with the way I feel about the noir genre in general — but I did find it incredibly gripping. The American setting is interesting, isn’t it? I couldn’t help but think that it resonates with the frustrations Steve feels in connection with his status relative to Nancy – hence my reference to the work of Richard Yates.

      Anyway, I owe you a big ‘thank you’ for this one, Scott – I’m pretty sure you recommended it to me in the first place!

      Reply
  9. Max Cairnduff

    It sounds very good but I still have an unread Simenon – Dirty Snow I think. The tunnel reminds me rather of George Bone with his “click” (on which note, check out the cover for Hangover Square that’s on the wikipedia page for it – it’s tremendous).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hey, that’s a great spot with the comparison between Steve and George Harvey Bone – definitely some clear parallels there. I just took a look at that cover on the wiki page. You’re right, it’s terrific. It really captures something of the menace and ominous feel of the novel. Wouldn’t it be great to own a copy with that jacket…

      Returning to Simenon for a mo, I have a copy of Dirty Snow on the shelves at home. I suspect it will be my next by him, a very bleak novel by all accounts.

      Reply
  10. Caroline

    Like Max, I’ve got unread Simenon’s on my pile, so this will have to wait, although it sounds better than I expected. I think I missed your La veuve Couderc review last year. That’s on my pile.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Widow is excellent, really dark and disturbing. It reminded me a little of Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Giles in certain places. Simenon was a fan by all accounts, so he must have read it back in the day.

      Reply
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