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Georges Simenon Dirty Snow Afterword: William T. Vollmann

Georges Simenon, the Belgian writer, who died in 1989, authored 200 novels, 150 novellas, among other works and wrote under a couple of dozen pseudonyms. If one had counted all of Raymond Chandler’s books, and for the hell of it, added his bar bills to make another dozen books, Chandler’s output would still remain a small fraction of what Simenon produced. But Simenon’s work rarely features in the discussion of modern fiction. Simenon, the man, is often thought of as a legendary lover. To have one’s fiction largely forgotten and one’s sex adventures remembered is one of those roll of the dice outcomes. In Simenon’s case, the number of conquest he notched up with a sniper’s methodical record keeping vastly out numbered his books.


Simenon’s most famous series beginning in 1931 and ending in 1972 ran for 75 novels; the series featured the French police detective, Inspector Julies Maigret Simenon also wrote literary novels. Dirty Snow falls in that category and is set in an unnamed country during the occupation by an enemy force. It is most likely drawn on Simenon’s experience of living in France during the Nazi occupation. (Simenon was accused of being a German collaborator during WWII and banned from writing for five years after the war ended.) The lead character named Frank, a nineteen year old, has killed his first man, ambushing him at night, sticking a knife in his ribs and stealing his service revolver. Frank lives with his mother who runs a brothel from her apartment in a building where the inhabitants are hostile to the occupiers and to Frank and his mother, who they suspect are collaborators. Given the soldiers and police who rule with an iron-fist in the occupation are the paying customers at the brothel, their suspicions about Frank and his mother ring true.

Dirty Snow is a chilling example of noir fiction. Those in the black market seize their opportunities, do business with the enemy, enrich themselves with shady deals and murder, and soon act as if they are invincible. The dance between the Occupation authorities and Frank and his friends slowly reveals that behind the curtain of collaboration no one remains untainted or safe; that while fear corrodes the morale of many, leaving an exhausted few to draw upon the strength to resist the occupiers. As a story of occupation, terror, hubris, secrecy and how power causes people to lose their perspective, their sense of humanity and ultimately their life.

Dirty Snow answers the debate between what is noir and what is hardboiled fiction.


Nothing is fiction rolls us through gutter of alienation, throws dirt in our vision of pure white snow as this example of noir writing. Simenon reminds us, that in noir, there is no escape from the darkness of our doomed destiny.


The above piece will also run this Friday 14 November 2008 on the Forgotten Books column. Link: http://pattinase.blogspot.com

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