The books Georges Simenon (1903-89) is most known for are his series of Inspector Maigret novels. But some ardent admirers of Simenon’s literary output prefer what he called his romans durs-crime stories that were edgier and more psychologically complex than the Maigret titles. Any such Simenon fan would do well to become acquainted with the work of Pascal Garnier (1949-2010), who can be seen as the heir to the noir side of Simenon.
There are likenesses between Simenon’s romans durs and Garnier’s noir novels, beyond the facts that in both cases we are considering crime stories originally written in French. One commonality is brevity. Simenon intended for his novels to be read in one sitting, thus kept them compact; Garnier’s books are equally brief and waste-free. Both sets of novels have the duality of being welcoming yet disturbing. They ease you in comfortably, making you feel as though you’re entering a cozy mystery tale, and then along the way they erupt into something far more sinister than what one finds in those safer crime stories. Imagine watching a light-hearted romantic comedy that suddenly turns into a Luis Bunuel film halfway through its running, and you’ll get a sense of that duplicity that each of these men pulled off in their noir fiction writing. Also, both writers used crime stories as a means to expertly reveal the desperation hiding under the veneer of seemingly ordinary people.
Garnier, whose formal education stopped when he was 15 and who was also a musician and painter, as well as a short story writer and author of children’s books, started writing fiction when in his mid-30s. The plotlines of his novels are rich, and are premises that Simenon readers can appreciate. One specialty of his noir fiction was characters who lose control of themselves while living in provincial areas of France. Garnier, who was born in Paris and did much of his writing from his home near the Ardeche mountains, liked to take people out of the city and set them in remote surroundings, then have their personal worlds become shattered; and then see what they will do in such mental states while in such environs.
A glimpse at some of the storylines in his crime novels: A couple decides to move away from their city apartment and relocate to a small village; the woman goes missing and is presumed dead, and her husband carries on with the move, anyway, and in the provincial area the psychological threads that normally kept him together appear to be coming apart. A man’s wife dies in a car accident and the other casualty of the wreck is a man who turns out to have been the woman’s lover; the widower becomes morbidly interested in the wife of the man who cuckolded him. A middle-aged woman hasn’t left her home since being terrorized by German soldiers during the WWII-era occupation of France, and now her brother, who lives with her and has been seeing to her needs all these decades, is terminally ill and it’s his turn to have a personality breakdown. A peculiar man appears in a Breton town in which he has no apparent reason for being, and drifts into the lives of several people there; is he really as selflessly angelic as he seems, or is he haunted by something? A married man leaves the city to attend his mother’s funeral in his small hometown, and while there he becomes reconnected to a woman he used to love and with whom he was once complicit in a horrific act they’d both hoped to forget.
His books are filled with bleak humor and surprising, surreal lines and passages, such as:
“I went to Switzerland with school once, too. It was really nice, just like the postcards. Have you been?”
“Yes. It’s very pretty. It makes you want to die.”
Happiness is a calamity you can never recover from.
Martial had never gone to war, though he had served his time at the Naval Ministry in Paris. The position was not without risks; he might have easily died of boredom.
“Yes, yes. It’s her.
“Right. Do you know what her final wishes were?”
“Her final wishes?”
“Yes, whether she wanted to be buried or cremated?”
“I’ve no idea . . . I imagine like everybody else, she didn’t want to die at all.”
Both strategically and psychologically, his position was untenable, so he decided to go out for a coffee while he waited for the world to end.
Dead people don’t decorate the way we do.
Of course it was madness, but that was exactly what she was missing: a touch of madness to stop herself from sinking into reason.
Many of Garnier’s novels have a cinematic quality to them, leaving one to wonder when experimental filmmakers might start thinking in terms of adapting his work for the big screen. His noir novels call to mind some of the classics of New Wave cinema, both French and otherwise. In Francois Truffaut’s 1960 film Shoot the Piano Player, adapted from David Goodis’s 1957 novel Down There, the two thugs who are the nemeses of the protagonist and his lady friend are both foolish yet dangerous. They’re presented as buffoons but they’re morons who are also killers, and they are a very real threat to the safety of the lead character and the woman about whom he cares. That duality – characters who are ludicrous yet menacing – is a trademark quality of Garnier’s novels, which manage to be both outrageous and disquieting. Another New Wave film one thinks of when reading Garnier is Wim Wenders’ 1972 title The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, taken from the Peter Handke novel of the same title. In that tale, a soccer goalkeeper gets ejected from a game and he drifts away from his team and into murderous danger. Something happened to upset the routines in the life of an apparently average, functional person, and that was all it took for the violent interior of the man to erupt and cause him to act out in perilous ways. That goalkeeper could easily be one of the people from Garnier’s work.
Gallic Books of the U.K. has released a series of new English translations of Garnier’s noir novels. Their most recent, the ninth title in the run, is The Eskimo Solution.