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The Strangers in the House by Georges Simenon

Frank Wilson [The Philadelphia Inquirer]

Simenon is best known, at least in the Anglophone world, for his Inspector Maigret mysteries, but The Strangers in the House is not really a crime novel.


The Strangers in the House

Publisher: New York Review of Books Classics
Length: 216
Formats: Paperback
Price: $14.00
Author: Georges Simenon
US publication date: 2006-10
UK publication date: 2006-10
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For 18 years -- ever since his wife ran off with another man -- Hector Loursat, the protagonist of Georges Simenon's The Strangers in the House, has begun his day by going to his wine cellar and bringing up three bottles of burgundy to his study, where he spends most of his time. His daughter, Nicole -- raised by Phine, the ugly, dwarfish cook, who despises Loursat -- lives in another wing of Loursat's spacious house.

A lawyer, reputedly a very good one, Loursat has largely ceased to practice, preferring instead to live off the family wealth. He pays no attention to his appearance. His hair is shaggy, his beard untrimmed, his mustache tobacco-stained.

Father and daughter encounter each other only at dinner, a somber affair during which Loursat slurps and spills, adding to the stains already decorating his black velveteen smoking jacket:

"It was the same every evening, without the slightest variation. Loursat didn't look at Nicole. Only, as he made for the door, he grunted:

"Goodnight."

On this night, something different happens. Locked in his study, Loursat hears, despite the padded door, a strange sound. Indeed, "it was precisely its strangeness that had roused Loursat from his torpor."

So he leaves his lair and actually calls to his daughter, not once, but three times. When she doesn't answer, he knocks on her door. Then he notices someone, a man in a mackintosh, rushing down the stairs and out of the house. Father and daughter together climb the stairs to the top floor of the house and, in a room once occupied by the family gardener, find a man lying on a bed with a bandaged leg who, just as they enter, expires from a gunshot wound.

Simenon is best known, at least in the Anglophone world, for his Inspector Maigret mysteries, but The Strangers in the House is not really a crime novel. A crime figures, of course, but the novel's focus is on how people can live under the same roof for years and never get to know each other. Or even, in Loursat's case, what is going on under that roof.

It turns out that Nicole has been hosting parties for a gang of friends in the house. The man shot in the upstairs room is a thug they brought back after they hit him with a car on one of their outings. One of her friends -- a poor young man without connections -- is charged with the murder. Loursat senses he is innocent and decides to defend him.

And that is how Nicole gets to know her father. And how Loursat gets to know Nicole -- and himself:

"The truth was ...

"Yes! That was it. That's what had been getting under his skin for the last hour -- and perhaps for much longer -- it was what had been nagging him and making him conscious of a sense of shame -- he was alone.

"Alone in time, alone in space, alone with a fat, ill-kept body, a scraggly beard, and great big liverish eyes, alone with his own thoughts that had long ago lost any zest or freshness, alone with his bottle of burgundy!"

Most of Simenon's novels are short, 200 pages or less, short enough to be read in one or two sittings. He tended to write them in less than two weeks of isolated, intense concentration. His style is spare but unusually potent. If you want to learn how to use adjectives -- which is to say, with economy and precision -- read Simenon. His skill at creating a sense of place is uncanny:

"... it was an ordinary place, if anything a bit cleaner than most country inns. The bar was made of pine and the walls were done with oil paint plastered over with liquor advertisements. But in spite of the line of tables and the row of bottles behind the bar, the feeling you got was somehow not that of a public place. There was a calmness and intimacy about it like that of an old family kitchen, in a farmhouse for instance. Perhaps the cream-colored curtains had something to do with it."

When you finish The Strangers in the House, the memory of the dark and rainy streets of Moulins, the town where the story is set, stays with you palpably.

Of course, Simenon is too much of a realist to suggest that Loursat undergoes any grand transformation. After the trial, he and Nicole go their separate ways, which for him means more alone than ever. But in coming to understand himself better, Loursat does come to feel more sympathy for his fellow humans. Regarding the young man who turns out to have done the shooting, he thinks: "At last he could escape from that unbearable solitude, from being alone with himself and with all those dirty little truths he alone knew."

Just like Hector Loursat.

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