A Book of Silhouettes and Shadows

May 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Hotel Majestic (Simenon, Georges)

A Woman’s Body is found. She has a Past. Her husband is an Important Foreigner, and there are Phone Calls from Higher Ups saying he Must Not be Investigated. His Movements are Secretive, however, and his Alibi doesn’t check out: he may be having an Affair. Many others act in a Suspicious Manner. Anonymous letters fly back and forth. Blackmailers are At Large. There is even a Mysterious Inscrutable Oriental Gentleman with a Dodgy Police Record who turns up in the end. Through all this, the Police Superintendent wears a bulky overcoat and a hat, smokes a pipe, drinks cheap liquor at seedy smoke-filled booze joints in the underbelly of the city, banters with the lowlife, bullying, cajoling, and extracting information from them, and Generally Observes All.

The Hotel Majestic (French original, Le Caves du Majestic) is set in the Paris of the 1940’s. It is a different day and age – long distance phone calls need to be manually connected, and policemen think nothing of listening in on conversations with some help from the exchange, or drinking beer at their seats in the Police Headquarters, or punching an arrested man in the face just because they feel like it.

This is a story set in pre-dawn and twilight dimness. Shadows and silhouettes abound. Servants glide discreetly down corridors through doors half-concealed by mirrors. The sudden striking of a match, the ‘pfffft‘ of a gas stove, brings part of a face into sharp relief. Everything, including the morality of the characters, is depicted in shades of gray. This is, therefore, a book that lends itself completely to noir rendition, and though I don’t believe any of Simenon’s 75 Inspector Maigret novels made much of a splash in Hollywood, they were an instant hit on television across Europe and even in faraway Japan.

I suppose a full-blown feature film demands more of its characters; Maigret would have needed to get involved in the crime itself a bit more (like a Sam Spade or a Philip Marlowe), or Maigret’s own love life would have to be subjected to closer scrutiny (a la Dave Bannion), and Simenon doesn’t seem to be interested in doing any of this, at least on the evidence of this one book. Simenon’s narrative is the literary equivalent of the sawn-off shotgun: it is purely functional. Everything unnecessary to the plot has been shaved off. What remains is concentrated, distilled detective fiction. As a necessary corollary, the suspense, the action, the relentless pace cannot be sustained beyond a point; consequently, the ideal media for Maigret are the TV episode and the slim paperback – neither of which, sadly, can provide his audience with more than a couple of hours of joy.

In an earlier post, I had alluded to Milan Kundera‘s description of the death of novel genres:  how they lose the ability to say anything new after endless repetition and minor variations. The detective crime genre has had every last bit of possible cleverness milked from it, and has very little left to give. What is worse is that the death of the genre is retroactive. When people first read Inspector Maigret stories, or Sherlock Holmes mysteries, or Philip Marlowe whodunnits, there must have been a sense of awe, of the sheer novelty of the novels. When my generation reads Inspector Maigret, however, there is a sense of deja vu; a sense of haven’t-we-read-this-before, of  predictability; so what’s new, we say. What we find hard to appreciate is that this was new when it was written, and the ones we are overfed on today are the duplicates.

Something similar has happened in cinema as well. People who have been fed a steady diet of Saw and Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchises are unlikely to feel a single hair on their body rise if they are then shown Psycho; once you’ve stared into the slavering jaws of a snarling Tyrannosaurus Rex in IMAX 3-D, Hitchcock’s Birds will put you to sleep. The copies and variations have not only made themselves redundant, they have gone back in time and ruined the originals for us as well. Where does the fault lie? Is it with the writers who exploited the same formula for years? Or is it with the insatiable appetite of the readers and audience, for demanding more and more helpings of the same, until the novel becomes the banal?

Personally, I blame the nature of the genres themselves. The only selling proposition of the horror and crime genres is their shock value, a proposition whose value depreciates over time, by definition; and so in their repeated success itself lies the key to their eventual demise.

Silhouettes and Shadows: Inspector Maigret Observes All


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