Category Archives: Simenon, Georges

The month so far: NF November and #NovNov23

First of all, today was clock switching day for us in the U.S., which always discombobulates me a little bit. In the fall, when we “fall back,” the discombobulation is all positive. I get an extra hour! Yay!

So far, I’ve read two novellas and finished on non-fiction book:

Hell's Half Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, America's First Serial Killer FamilyHell's Half Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
by Susan Jonusas
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: March 1, 2022
Genre: non-fiction
Pages: 345
ReRead?: No
Project: non-fiction november

A suspense filled tale of murder on the American frontier—shedding new light on a family of serial killers in Kansas, whose horrifying crimes gripped the attention of a nation still reeling from war.

In 1873 the people of Labette County, Kansas made a grisly discovery. Buried by a trailside cabin beneath an orchard of young apple trees were the remains of countless bodies. Below the cabin itself was a cellar stained with blood. The Benders, the family of four who once resided on the property were nowhere to be found. The discovery sent the local community and national newspapers into a frenzy that continued for decades, sparking an epic manhunt for the Benders.

The idea that a family of seemingly respectable homesteaders—one among the thousands relocating farther west in search of land and opportunity after the Civil War—were capable of operating "a human slaughter pen" appalled and fascinated the nation. But who the Benders really were, why they committed such a vicious killing spree and whether justice ever caught up to them is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. Set against the backdrop of postbellum America, Hell’s Half-Acre explores the environment capable of allowing such horrors to take place. Drawing on extensive original archival material, Susan Jonusas introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters, many of whom have been previously missing from the story. Among them are the families of the victims, the hapless detectives who lost the trail, and the fugitives that helped the murderers escape.

Hell’s Half-Acre is a journey into the turbulent heart of nineteenth century America, a place where modernity stalks across the landscape, violently displacing existing populations and building new ones. It is a world where folklore can quickly become fact and an entire family of criminals can slip through a community’s fingers, only to reappear in the most unexpected of places.

I liked this one, but I didn’t love it because there was something missing for me. I think it’s probably just the basic reality that there weren’t a lot of sources available to the author, so some of it felt like speculation, and it felt incomplete. There wasn’t much meat on the bones; I don’t really feel like I know a lot more than I would have from reading a long form article in a magazine. It’s a fast read, though, and is entertaining enough to keep me turning pages.

In PatagoniaIn Patagonia
by Bruce Chatwin
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1977
Genre: travel and geography
Pages: 199
ReRead?: No
Project: non-fiction november

An exhilarating look at a place that still retains the exotic mystery of a far-off, unseen land, Bruce Chatwin’s exquisite account of his journey through Patagonia teems with evocative descriptions, remarkable bits of history, and unforgettable anecdotes. Fueled by an unmistakable lust for life and adventure and a singular gift for storytelling, Chatwin treks through “the uttermost part of the earth”— that stretch of land at the southern tip of South America, where bandits were once made welcome—in search of almost forgotten legends, the descendants of Welsh immigrants, and the log cabin built by Butch Cassidy. An instant classic upon its publication in 1977, In Patagonia is a masterpiece that has cast a long shadow upon the literary world.

My second non-fiction this month is shelved on Goodreads under multiple categories: travel, non-fiction, history, adventure, memoir, biography, nature. All of them fit, and, really, none of them fit. A favorite – and overused – descriptor of book reviewers is “genre busting.” Yeah, it fits here. There’s also a fair amount of mythologizing happening in this book, I think. How much of the information about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is based in fact? No idea. I’m reminded, just a little bit, of A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, although I found Fermor quite a bit more charming than I found Chatwin.

Patagonia is an odd place, though, and the thing that I did like about this book is that I feel like it did justice to the oddness. It is a place that was repeatedly colonized, and Chatwin introduces the reader to many of the different cultures that are represented there, and the effect that the geography is having upon the individuals involved. I’m not sure that a book like this would be published today, in our era of sensitivity to colonialism. The indigenous people of Patagonia are not entirely absent, but a lot more time was spent with the settlers. I kept thinking about Agatha Christie’s character Arthur Hasting and his foray into “the Argentine” as a cattle rancher, and, as well, the former Nazis who fled to South America at the end of WWII.

I don’t think I’ll be reading more by Chatwin, I didn’t enjoy this enough to make me seek out more of his books. I am reminded, though, that I want to read the other two books in Fermor’s trilogy of travel memoirs: Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road: from the Iron Gates to Mount Athos.

Maigret Defends HimselfMaigret Defends Himself
by Georges Simenon
Translated from: French
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Inspector Maigret #63
Publication Date: January 1, 1964
Genre: mystery: silver age (1950-1979)
Pages: 160
ReRead?: No
Project: inspector maigret

For the first time in his career Inspector Maigret receives written summons to the Prefect's office where he learns that he has been accused of assaulting a young woman. With his career and reputation on the line, Maigret must fight to prove his innocence.

Penguin is publishing the entire series of Maigret novels in new translations. This novel has been published in a previous translation as Maigret on the Defensive.

I have ready so many of Simenon’s Maigret mysteries over the last couple of years. This is a later Maigret (number 63, which really just seems nuts that someone could write 63 books using the same character), published in the 1960’s. Maigret is 3 years shy of the French mandatory retirement age of 55, which makes him 52 years old. It feels like Maigret was around 50 years old at the start of the series 33 years earlier, in 1931. Apparently, Simenon wasn’t particularly interested in character growth.

This is a bit of an odd one, although admittedly, I feel like I often close a Maigret and mutter to myself “well, this was a bit of an odd one.” This is probably a testament to Simenon’s skill as an author, that I don’t feel like his stories are formulaic. We are in Paris for the entirety of this book, and Maigret is investigating . . . himself. Someone is trying to set him up, and he has to figure out why. At a slender 160 pages, this was my first novella of #NovNov23.

by Claire Keegan
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 2007
Genre: fiction, novella
Pages: 128
ReRead?: No
Project: #novnov

Claire Keegan's piercing contemporary classic Foster is a heartbreaking story of childhood, loss, and love; now released as a standalone book for the first time ever in the US

It is a hot summer in rural Ireland. A child is taken by her father to live with relatives on a farm, not knowing when or if she will be brought home again. In the Kinsellas' house, she finds an affection and warmth she has not known and slowly, in their care, begins to blossom. But there is something unspoken in this new household--where everything is so well tended to--and this summer must soon come to an end.

This was definitely the standout book of the week for me. Keegan has two novellas that I’m planning to read this month – this one and Small Things Like These. She is a beautifully economical writer, and Foster was compelling, sad, and impactful. A perfect gem of a book, without a word out of place, it gave me all of the feels.

When I read a book by an Irish author, I always want to read more books by Irish authors.

A Pair of Maigret Mysteries

Maigret and the Reluctant WitnessMaigret and the Reluctant Witness
by Georges Simenon
Translated from: French
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Inspector Maigret #53
Publication Date: January 1, 1955
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 172
ReRead?: No

A once-wealthy family closes ranks when one of their own is shot, leaving Maigret - along with a troublesome new magistrate - to pick his way through their secrets.

It was as if suddenly, long ago, life had stopped here, not the life of the man lying on the bed but the life of the house, the life of its world, and even the factory chimney that could be seen through the curtains looked obsolete and absurd.

I haven’t posted in months. I don’t know what my blogging problem has been – like Maigret’s reluctant witnesses from this book, I have been the reluctant blogger. Every time I consider opening a new post window, I immediately reject the idea. Usually to return to doomscrolling on Twitter. About the only good thing that would come from the potential impending Twitter collapse would be my inability to waste so much time on it.

Anyway, from time to time I feel the need to binge on something, and this month, apparently, it is Maigret. I checked out a small pile of the new Penguin translations from my local library: Maigret and the Killer (#70, published in 1969), Maigret and the Reluctant Witness (#53, published in 1955), Maigret and the Ghost (#62, published in 1964), The Judges House (#21, published in 1940) and Maigret Enjoys Himself (#50, published in 1957).  These were selected for no rhyme nor reason, in no particular order, and without even really looking at the plot synopses. I just picked books that were available. That’s it.

The first one that I finished was Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses. This is set in Paris and is in the later half of the series; Maigret is seemingly getting accustomed to the idea of retirement – although now that I know that there 74 books total, which means there are 21 books that follow this one, the immediacy of his retirement seems quite exaggerated. Maigret is sent to investigate a murder that has occurred in the Lachaume family home, where they have lived for many generations, the owners of a biscuit factory. No one seems to actually buy, or eat, their biscuits, so how the factory keeps churning them out is a significant part of the mystery.

It is necessary to get into a bit of a groove with Simenon and Maigret. These books look slight, but they are really not. At a mere 183 pages, the book is full of character and social commentary. Like Agatha Christie’s England, Simenon’s France is a place both in and out of time. The “mystery” is almost beside the point, and I make very few efforts to “solve” the case; enjoying, rather, the sensation of slipping into a very distinct world. The mystery itself, here, is well rendered, as is the fading, insular upper class Parisian family at the center of it.

Maigret and the KillerMaigret and the Killer
by Georges Simenon
Translated from: French
Rating: ★★★★½
Series: Inspector Maigret #70
Publication Date: January 1, 1969
Genre: crime
Pages: 192
ReRead?: No

When a tape recorder is found on a murder victim, Inspector Maigret hopes this will be the clue he needs to track down the killer.

This entry was very late in the series, and Maigret still hasn’t retired, although he continues to mention that it is imminent. As someone who is – myself – planning to retire in less than a year, I find this vaguely hilarious. Do it, Maigret, and spend some delightful years in the company of Mrs. Maigret.

I really liked this one. First of all, I’m grooving on Simenon’s Paris here, but also, this is a psychopath mystery and it’s really intriguing. It’s proto-Criminal Minds.

In addition, Mrs. Maigret plays a significant role and shows bravery and resourcefulness. I always enjoy seeing functional marriages between the detective/inspector and spouse in crime fiction because they are the exception and not the norm. I grow weary of the fictional brilliant damaged detective who can’t maintain a healthy relationship with other human beings. At this point, it’s a trite stereotype.

I think that I will read The Judge’s House next, because I love the cover, and I love it when Maigret gets sent to coastal France. This is an early entry into the series, at #21, and was published in 1940.

I am also going to take a moment to talk about these new Penguin editions because I love them. I think that the book design is really appealing – the print is a big bigger than usual and they are a nice, slim size. All of the covers are details from photos by a photographer named Harry Gruyaert. I had never heard of him until I noticed that several covers credited his photographs so I went down a tiny internet rabbit hold and found this wonderful feature from the Guardian: Georges Simenon’s Maigret gets a new look – in pictures, which provides some context for the project.

Lucky for me, it seems that one of my two library systems has all of them. I’m not sure how long this binge will last, but so long as it does, I intend to indulge it.