Graeme Macrae Burnet’s favourite Euro-noir novels
I’ve often been asked why I chose to set my first novel The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau in the nondescript French town of Saint-Louis. The answer is quite simple: the setting itself was the idea for the novel; the story and characters came later. On a chance visit to Saint-Louis a number of years ago, I was captivated by the sense of unchanging routine and claustrophobia I observed (or perhaps projected) there. As a reader I like to feel transported to the locale of whatever I’m reading and the best writers and crime novels do just this. Here are four favourites:
The Blue Room by Georges Simenon
Simenon has a peerless ability to conjure a strong sense of place from the sparsest sentences and a few astute observations. His novels are set as far afield as his native Belgium, the US and Africa, but, to my mind he is at his very best casting his eye over the interactions of small-town cafés and bars and the characters who inhabit them. It’s hard to select a single novel from the around 200 Simenon wrote, but The Blue Room has recently been reissued and is a fine demonstration of the author’s craftsmanship.
The novel opens with Tony Falcone and his mistress, Andrée, ‘light-headed, their bodies still tingling’, on a post-coital high following their monthly tryst at the Hôtel des Voyageurs in the village of Saint-Justin, but it is the description of the sights and sounds from the terrace below – ‘the stew simmering in the kitchen, mingled with the faintly musty smell of the fibre mattress’ – that truly brings the scene to life. As with all Simenon, the action unfolds from this opening scene with a doleful sense of inevitability, but it is his evocation of the setting which really lingers in the mind.
The Erasers by Alain Robbe-Grillet
Reading Robbe-Grillet is a bit like looking under the bonnet of a car: only really necessary if you want to be a mechanic. What is The Erasers like? Imagine someone dropped a Maigret novel from a tenth-floor window then shovelled the shattered pieces into a book. The novel ostensibly concerns the murder of a professor in an unnamed French town. A detective investigates. But there any resemblance with a conventional crime novel ends. You don’t know who is who; in what order events have taken place; or even if the events described have really happened. It’s disorientating, but it makes you question the nature of the way we tell stories and how we understand them. It’s a bit like that time you agreed to eat a handful of raw chillies for a dare: it wasn’t a lot of fun, but you’re strangely glad you did it.
Double-Barrel by Nicolas Freeling
For readers of a certain age, Nicolas Freeling’s name will be forever associated with the Van der Valk theme of the 1970s TV series, but as a writer he is now largely and unjustly forgotten. It’s a pity because his Amsterdam-based detective is every bit the equal of Simenon’s Maigret when it comes to unorthodox methods. Freeling was English but lived a cosmopolitan life, and his novels feel very European. In Double-Barrel, Van der Valk is seconded to the dreary northern Dutch town of Zwinderen, where a series of poison pen letters have been sent. Van der Valk duly investigates, but Freeling’s real purpose is to reveal the hypocrisy lurking beneath the Calvinist small-town mindset. Van der Valk ends up playing Peeping Tom himself, implicating himself, and we the readers, in the voyeurism of the town’s population:
Watching a person through binoculars – even if that person is simply cleaning his teeth under the kitchen tap – creates a strong emotion. You are ashamed and excited… With binoculars you are the submarine commander, the assassin, the preacher in the pulpit. God. As well as, always, the pornographer. A strong hot emotion.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime and Punishment is the great grand-daddy of crime novels. It’s a big beast, baggy and capacious, but at its heart is the relationship between the murderer Raskolnikov and the wily detective Porfiry, who rather than confronting his quarry allows his guilt to compel him to confess. It’s exactly the way that you would expect Maigret or Van der Valk to operate. What is perhaps less commonly commented upon is the fantastic vibrancy of Dostoyevsky’s Saint Petersburg. From the very opening pages we are immersed in a city strewn with the depraved, destitute and insane; a city of stifling heat, crammed alleyways, riven with the ‘unendurable stench of the pubs’. It’s like wandering through a Hieronymus Bosch canvas with a madman as your guide.
Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel His Bloody Project is longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. He will be at Bloody Scotland for the Writing in Exile event on September 11th at 1:30pm.