Georges Simenon, A Maigret Christmas, tr. David Coward, Penguin UK    Despite the title, this is not ‘A Maigret Christmas’, or mostly not. The first story is an investigation by Maigret, with an unusual moment of feeling between Monsieur and Madame. The second and third belong to other Inspectors. As ever, most of the characters we meet are relatively poor, wracked by drink and debt, and often unattractive. Not all, however. I sometimes wonder if Simenon had read O. Henry, and here, particularly, I think of ‘The Gifts of the Magi’. Christmas being Christmas, there is a degree of redemption which lifts some characters out of the morass of their everyday lives. I’d say that ‘A Little Restaurant near Place des Ternes is also redemptive, although it begins with a suicide. ‘Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook’ focuses on the night shift of telephonists who keep track of the Paris nicks, their vans, motorbikes, bicycles, and foot patrolmen. The man whose notebook contains the small crosses is one of those individuals with very low self-esteem. What Simenon was so good at was ordinary conversation and how it functions. Here his manipulation of the men manning the phones and in the nearby Quai des Orfevres officers moves from suspected murder to murderer to fear for a ten-year-old, and then a denouement I won’t spoil. If you wanted a short collection of stories for Christmas, this wouldn’t be a bad choice. It would be a good one.

Jo Nesbo, Thirst, tr. Neil Smith, Harvill Secker     Did we ever find out how Harry Hole survived? Surely my last memory of him is the female rat that’s waiting to be sure he’s dead? Perhaps this is what fiction means: remember Reacher running up the steps of the underground silo knowing death is inescapable and near? We never found out about that, either. Never mind. Nowadays, Harry Hole lectures at the police academy and is much admired by future policemen and women. He and Rakel are happy—or as close to happiness as he can manage. In this novel she has a sudden collapse (no, no, don’t worry) which her doctors cannot identify. ‘Some kind of poison’, opines the haematologist.  On to the novel. Let us agree that Nesbo, having acknowledged that perhaps he went too far in the depiction of violence and abuse, goes back to violence and abuse. Or, if you prefer, Thirst does what it says on the can, or the dustjacket. Nesbo’s characters live in a world of men, and some of his women (Ulla Bellman, the spouse of his antagonist, Michael Bellman) are proof that Nesbo can’t draw female characters. His women are consistently victims, on a tiny spectrum, including marrying the wrong guy. Still, as I say, Nesbo is a ‘wysiwyg’ writer: what you see is what you get. And you get a lot: the book is over five hundred pages long. Most ridiculous moment not related to sex: when Harry disrupts a doctoral defence.  However, Nesbo’s plotting is excellent, and his take on the locked-room mystery is a hoot. He creates characters you can’t not suspect, and then pulls the rug out from under, though this doesn’t always convince. Rakel’s son’s past as an addict and drug dealer seems (except for purposes of blackmailing Harry) to have evaporated. Which is not exactly the case for Harry, who ends the tale having acquired a bar.

Elena Varvello, Can You Hear Me?, tr. Alex Valente, Two Roads 17    There are always difficulties for reviewers when a well-written book is also autobiographical. This one won the English Pen Award and there are paeans of praise in the early pages of the book. The plot is familiar enough. An Italian family of three, just above the poverty line, in an area which has lost the factory which gave local people work and some dignity, is suddenly without many resources. The father of the family is unmoored from the rhythms of job and comradeship, and sinks into mental illness. He is bi-polar, though for his family there is no such diagnosis. His wild ups and downs embarrass his 16-year-old son, Elia, though his wife manages to keep coping, including with her son’s raging hormones. From the distance of years, Elia narrates the story of his father’s last summer, while the pains of the past haunt and shame him, not just about his failure to save his father, but his memories of being a self-absorbed teenager discovering sex.  And then there’s a crime. Perhaps there’s more than one. This is a book which uses the armature of crime fiction’s conventions to good purpose. What, after all, happens almost anywhere when one of the neighbours suffers from mental illness? One might keep in mind that in 1942 the Beveridge report identified five “Giant Evils” in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Probably Elena Varvello doesn’t know about Beveridge, or the foundations of the National Health Service, but her book is in more than one sense a description of those five terrible scourges. And in the twenty-first century they are still there, threatening the poor all across Europe (I include the UK).

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