Sneaking this in as my contribution to Karen and Simon’s #1940Club, a week-long celebration of books first published in 1940. (You can find more info on the event here.)
The Strangers in the House is one of Simenon’s romans durs – ‘hard’, psychological novels with an existential edge. Like much of this author’s work, Strangers features a crime; however, the mystery and its resolution are not the most important elements here. Instead, Simenon is more concerned with delving into the psyche of his protagonist, Hector Loursat, a reclusive lawyer whose hermit-like existence is disturbed by a shocking event…
Since the departure of his wife, Geneviève, eighteen years ago, Loursat has had little to do with the outside world, including his fellow inhabitants of Moulins, the French town where he lives. Instead, he spends his days reading his vast collection of books while drinking copious quantities of Burgundy, emerging only for a short daily walk and dinner, which he eats in silence with his daughter, Nicole. While father and daughter share a vast, cavernous house, they have minimal contact on a day-to-day basis. In one sense, they are the ‘strangers’ of the novel’s title – an interpretation that seems particularly apt when we learn that Nicole – who was two when Geneviève ran off with her lover – has been raised by Josephine, the family’s truculent cook.
One night, Loursat is shaken out of his sleepy, Burgundy-fuelled existence when he hears what sounds like a gunshot from one of the other rooms. Emerging from his lair, Loursat makes his way to Nicole’s bedroom in the other wing of the house. While waiting for his daughter to open the door, our protagonist is convinced he sees a figure passing down the staircase the end of the corridor – a young man in a beige raincoat, as far as he can tell. The plot thickens when father and daughter make their way to the floor above, where they find a dead man lying in one of the beds. Loursat, for his part, knows nothing of this stranger who has been shot in the chest – his identity and reason for being in the house are a complete mystery to him, as are the details of the evening’s events. Moreover, Nicole also claims to have no knowledge of the victim or the circumstances surrounding his death.
However, as more details begin to emerge, it becomes clear that Loursat has little understanding of what his daughter has been getting up to in the other wing at night. It turns out that Nicole has fallen in with a gang of local boys who spend their evenings stealing various items as dares and partying in the house – all unbeknownst to Loursat, who is in effect something of a stranger in his own home. Nevertheless, when Nicole’s boyfriend, Émile, is accused of the murder, Loursat is convinced of the boy’s innocence and agrees to act as his lawyer for the trial.
Something Simenon does particularly well here is to show us how these events prompt Loursat to re-examine his reclusive life. Why has he withdrawn from society for the past eighteen years, preferring instead to live a life of near-total isolation like a primitive, unkempt bear? Consequently, there is a reawakening of sorts as the lawyer is forced to re-engage with the outside world while he investigates the case.
In his street, passing all the big houses that were similar to his, it struck him that he [Loursat] hated them, them and their occupants, just as he hated his sister, and Dossin, and Rogissart and his wife, and Ducup and the deputy prosecutor, all these people who hadn’t done him any harm but were on the other side of the barricade, which would have been his side if his wife hadn’t run off with a man named Bernard, if he hadn’t spent eighteen years shut up in his study and if he hadn’t just discovered a bustling life he’d never thought about, a life superimposed on the other life, the official life of the town… (p. 97)
In some respects, Loursat’s interests in philosophy and other related subjects enable him to understand the psychology and behavioural traits of the boys in Nicole’s gang – any one of whom could have committed the murder instead of Émile.
While Simenon’s romans durs are usually characterised by their bleak, ominous mood, Strangers feels somewhat different in tone. There are some wonderful touches of black comedy here as Loursat bristles at the thought of the town’s bourgeois residents – from the respectable Public Prosecutor, Rogissart, to his idiotic brother-in-law, Dossin, a man Loursat clearly disdains.
He wondered why he resented them [the Dossins] so much, and couldn’t find a satisfactory answer. True, he despised them for their vanity, for this townhouse they had built that had become their reason for being. As far as he was, concerned, Dossin, with his moustache that always smelt of liqueurs or young women, was the epitome of the happy idiot. (p. 80)
Moreover, Loursat is equally dismissive of his sister, Marthe (Dossin’s wife), whom he resents for ‘her constant mournfulness’ and ‘flabby, half-hearted elegance’, not to mention her desire for life’s materialistic trappings. In a further twist of fate, the Dossin’s sickly son, Edmond (Loursat’s nephew), is also embroiled in the murder investigation due to his influence over the other boys in the gang.
While the mystery behind the murder is finally solved, Strangers does not conform to the typical pattern of an investigative novel. There is little emphasis on gathering clues or delving into the perpetrator’s motives. Instead, we have an intriguing character study of a prickly, isolated man, prompted to make the transition from merely existing to actually participating, particularly in his daughter’s life.
As ever with Simenon, the atmosphere is suitably vivid, evoking images of rainy, wind-swept streets and cold, damp exteriors. No wonder Loursat spends so much time in his grubby, book-lined den, complete with his trusty stove and three bottles of Burgundy each day, especially when the weather seems unremittingly grim.
He could hear the raindrops and, occasionally, the squeak of a shutter that hadn’t been properly shut; the wind was rising and sudden gusts swept through the streets. He could also hear, with the clarity of a metronome, the ticking of his gold stopwatch in his waistcoat pocket. (p. 10)
In summary then, The Strangers in the House, is a most enjoyable Simenon – not as bleak as some of his other romans durs, but certainly gritty enough to fit the bill!