For most of us, Simenon is famous, justly, for his creation of Maigret, the pipe-smoking French detective that appeared in over a hundred novels and short stories from the 1930s to early 70s. The Maigret novels are light and the detective is a delight, but Simenon also wrote many other novels that are very different in tone – La neige était sale – Dirty Snow (1948) being one of them.
Dirty Snow was written in the USA after Simenon had left France in 1945 where he was under some suspicion for being a collaborator, having negotiated German film rights during the occupation. His observations of living in occupied France obviously influenced the writing of this novel which is set in an unspecified occupied country – it could be France, it could be Germany itself…
Dirty Snow is the story of one young man’s fall. Frank Friedmaier is nineteen. Fatherless, he lives with his mother Lotte who runs a whorehouse in an apartment block, tolerated by the other residents as she caters mainly to the town’s oppressors which keeps the attention away from them. Frank is itching to show that he can play with the big boys at Timo’s – the bar they all frequent. He decides it’s time to make his first kill …
And for Frank, who was nineteen, to kill his first man was another loss of viriginity hardly more disturbing than the first. And, like the first, it wasn’t premeditated. It just happened. As though a moment comes when it’s both necessary and natural to make a decision that has long since been made.
No one had pushed him to do it. No one had laughed at him. Besides, only fools let themselves be influenced by their friends.
For weeks, perhaps months, he had kept saying to himself, because he had felt within himself a sort of inferiority. ‘I’ll have to try …’
Not in a fight. That would have been against his nature. To have it count, it seemed to him, it would have to be done in cold blood.
And so by page four we know where we are with Frank. He chooses and kills his prey, but tellingly, also allows himself to be seen in the locality by Holst, a neighbour. However, he intuitively senses that Holst won’t tell. Blooded and with a gun in his pocket, Frank becomes fearless, but it is one callous and totally despicable act that I won’t say any more about, that will make him feared and lead to his downfall.
The second half of the book follows Frank’s few weeks under interrogation. Yes, he was caught – hoorah! After an initial beating, the interrogation is carried out by an old gentleman who takes his time with Frank to winkle out every single thing he knows about all of the people in his life, playing mind games with him, never telling him what he was arrested for. The sleep-deprived and starving Frank remains strong, determined to make it last as long as possible until the day he’s ready.
Told entirely from Frank’s perspective, this novel is really bleak. He is an amoral piece of scum; friendless, increasingly cold and emotionless. In the nurture versus nature debate, undoubtedly, his lack of a father figure in his life, and his over-protective mother have both helped to make him what he becomes.
Simenon takes us down all the way with Frank, but allows him one little glimpse of what could have been, before he meets his end. Maybe writing the book in the sunshine of Tucson, Arizona, Simenon needed to come up for air before ending it. I amongst others, (see Lizzies Literary Life review here), would have preferred that he stayed down – Frank didn’t deserve it.
The afterword by William T Vollmann was interesting – after positioning Dirty Snow as ultimate noir more akin to Chekov than Chandler, he compares Frank to characters in Middlemarch by George Eliot – in their failure to meet their potential – which was surprising, yet I could sort of see the sense in it. Personally, I was reminded throughout by Pinkie in Brighton Rock by Graham Greene – another very nasty young man, (and due for a re-read). The book also brought to mind Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada which I read earlier this year and reviewed here in terms of the sense of living under suspicion.
The Maigret books, yet wonderful, are as a mere bagatelle in comparison with this look into the abyss from Simenon. (10/10)
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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1948) trans Marc Romano and Louise Varèse, pub NYRB, 257 pages including afterword.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)
Middlemarch (Oxford World’s Classics) by George Eliot
Alone in Berlinby Hans Fallada