The Strangers in the House (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – Oct 24 2006
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Georges Simenon was nothing if not prolific in both his literary and public life. Born in Belgium in 1903, Simenon turned out hundreds of novels. Simenon's obsession with writing caused him to break off an affair (he was prolific in this area of his life as well) with the celebrated Josephine Baker in Paris when he could only write twelve novels in the twelve month period in which they were involved. Although perhaps best known for his Inspector Maigret detective novels, Simenon also wrote over a hundred novels that he referred to as `romans durs' (literally "hard novels"). "Strangers in the House" is one of Simenon's hard novels and to call it noir is not an understatement.
Hector Loursat, an accomplished attorney, has been a stranger in his own house ever since his wife abandoned him and their newborn child eighteen years ago. Since that time Loursat's universe has shrunk to his bedroom, his library and his dining room. He barely speaks to his now 18 year old daughter or their cook. They are for all intents and purposes, strangers. He is a hermit, alone with his books and a profligate amount of burgundy and brandy. It is only the murderous presence of other strangers in his house that may stir him out of his emotional coma. That dark-setting forms the backdrop for "Strangers in the House".
Loursat is roused from his alcohol-induced sleep by what he thinks may be a gunshot. His suspicions are confirmed when he stumbles through portions of the house he hasn't seen in years and discovers a body. He soon discovers that his daughter has fallen in with something of a gang of youths who like to live on the edge. The rest of the novel finds Loursat grappling with the implications of the murder. We see Loursat struggling out of his hermetic cocoon. The reader is left to wonder, as the story progresses, whether Loursat can break out of his cocoon long enough to connect with his daughter and protect her interests through a criminal investigation and trial.
The result is wholly satisfying. I was totally drawn to the character of Loursat. Simenon does not make him particularly attractive. His word pictures of Loursat's appearance and manner are not designed to elicit great sympathy. Nevertheless, the pain Loursat has suffered (although unstated) is palpable and as the story progressed I could not help but hope that Loursat would find the strength to `set things right' both with the criminal investigation and trial and with his life. The result is surprising but it also felt just about right.
New York Review of Books should be congratulated for bringing Simenon's classic `romans durs' back into print. The paperback quality is excellent and each novel in the series is introduced by a writer of note. In this instance the marvelous P.D. James writes a brief but powerful introduction. I recommend all of Simenon's books and Strangers in the House is no exception. L. Fleisig
Maître Loursat is not an attractive figure when we first meet him. A middle-aged bear of a man, he had been abandoned by his wife many years before. Now, drinking several bottles of Burgundy a day, he lives in two rooms of a big rambling house, accompanied only by a surly cook, a shifting procession of housemaids, and his almost-adult daughter Nicole, whom he sees only at silent mealtimes. He is quite unaware that a group of Nicole's friends have been occupying the house at night -- until he is disturbed by a gunshot and finds a dying stranger in one of the beds. The events that follow shake him out of his self-pity, and he eventually finds himself defending Nicole's lover in court. Loursat will be changed by the experience -- perhaps not much, but still significantly -- and this change is the real subject of the novel.
Simenon is superb as ever in describing the small provincial town. For instance: "Hardly a window that was not shuttered. The steps of the rare passerby in the dismal streets sounded furtive, almost embarrassed." Behind those shuttered windows, dinner parties are being held by the few privileged bourgeois families, all known to one another and often connected by marriage. Nicole's friends include some of the sons of these families, escaping boredom, and some lowlier individuals just seeking to be included. The class background, like the French legal system, may seem strange to American eyes, but it is an explosive mixture, leading to jealousy and ultimately to murder. And to the rebirth of Hector Loursat.