Thursday, 6 December 2012

My Friend Maigret by Georges Simenon

I have been meaning to read a Maigret novel for, well, years. When I was a child I read most of Agatha Christie's books, before moving on to Ngaio Marsh. I then lost interest in detective fiction, though in recent years I have picked up the odd P D James or Iain Rankin.

I deliberately bought an old Penguin edition, wanting to hark back to the green volumes that I associated with detective novels many years ago.

This was actually a very enjoyable read but the denouement was disappointing. Maigret is a great character and the description of 1950s France is affectionate and evocative. The basic story is that he has to go to the island of Porquerolles off the south coast of France when an idler is murdered after making claims that Maigret is his friend. He has in tow an English detective, sent from Scotland Yard to  observe his famous methods. After a bit of wine drinking and sunbathing, they solve the mystery and the obvious suspects are arrested.

The evocation of Porquerolles is really vivid and intriguing. But Simenon just lets the Englishman's role fade away. I was expecting some irony or surprise but it didn't come. And the arrest of the murderer was too quick and perfunctory.

But it gave me an appetite for more Maigret, for sure.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

I loved this book. The history of its writing and the snippets of literary criticism contained in the notes are fascinating, too.

The writing itself is very, very unsettling and the writer brilliantly sustains a sombre and disquieting tone that suffuses even the most quotidian scenes.

Lovely evocation of Caribbean nature and culture and clever, clever use of language to create mood.

Top drawer stuff.

Crash by J G Ballard

One of the weirdest books I have ever read. It is about the sexual fetishisation of car crashes. It is written in an overblown, hallucinatory style. The story is superficially realistic but is underpinned by a lot of fantastical description and detail.

The huge number of car crashes, for example. It is as if the main characters cannot even pop down to the shops without causing or seeing a car crash. But that sort of literalism is to quibble with what is really a meditation on the psychology of death, violence and, most of all, sex. There are lots of detailed descriptions of sex acts and the various fluids and physiognomies involved. It is really about perversion.

Sometimes it is funny, when it just goes over the top and it is impossible not to laugh. But overall it is a disturbing book, raising difficult questions about the way in which we imbue material objects with meaning and purpose drawn from our inner, human, sexual life. The book was written in the 1970s and today, it would probably be about mobile phones and other communication devices. Is it not amazing how much feeling and commitment we invest in these mobile communication tools? And is it not even more amazing that we don't seem able to see through and reject the seductive marketing that goes with them?

Crash is about that and a lot more. Great book.

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene

A good example of a Greene novel - spare prose, very English, hidden menace in the storyline. It is set in wartime London; the principal character is Arthur Rowe, who is unable to serve in the military and cuts himself off from the war effort and society in general. But he is ensnared in the work of some Fifth Columnists and, thereafter, the story becomes a straightforward thriller.

It is enjoyable both for the sheer excellence of Greene's writing and the period flavour of the story. A diversion, but a well structured and interesting one.