Of the hard-boiled writers welcomed, by virtue of their flinty prose and bleak psychological landscape, into the upper echelons of literary regard, few offer an oeuvre as daunting to a novice as Belgian-born Georges Simenon. Between the Inspector Maigret series, the pseudonymous publications, and the roman durs (“hard novels”), his 400-plus books rate among last century’s most prolific outputs, ensuring a discourse bound to either the vastly generalized or the hopelessly specific.
Let us attempt the latter: The Strangers in the House, published in 1951 and recently reissued by New York Review of Books, is about Loursat, a provincial lawyer who’s spent most of the last 18 years (since his wife left him and their two-year-old daughter) locked in the study of his massive house, drinking himself underwater with burgundy. This unkempt lumberer is frequently described as “bearish,” with “glaucous” eyes, as if still filmy from hibernation. A gunshot shakes him awake: one night, a man he doesn’t know is killed in Loursat’s house, in a third-floor room he hasn’t entered in years. The murder mystery in Strangers is mostly a vehicle for Loursat’s resurfacing, first into his own home, where his daughter and her friends have been carrying on all hours, and then into his hometown, as he builds a case to defend her adamant lover, accused of the killing.
Simenon is an unflinching psychologist — a behaviorist, maybe — though perhaps because of its two-weeks-or less composition time (customary for Simenon), Strangers’ subtext is at times exposited head-on; one longs, at such moments, for the faltering self-awareness and iceberg-principled depths of Cain or Thompson’s first-person narrators. One may also puzzle over a resolution leaving loose-hanging strands of plot, but a major difference between Simenon and most other pulpists is that his characters and their actions serve a setting-specific verisimilitude, rather than some all-encompassing plot. And above all Strangers is a novel about people and a place; from Loursat’s smoke-filled study to the acutely sketched small-town bars to the weather (first a pervasive October drizzle, then, with Loursat engaged in the trial, a bracing January wind), Simenon’s atmospherics are his book’s cardinal virtue, and seemingly its root cause.