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John Banville on His Top Five Georges Simenon Novels

Posted on 1st November 2021 by Anna Orhanen

In our November Thriller of the Month Snow, John Banville puts a wintry, psychologically acute spin on the classic whodunnit, exploring the religious tensions in 1950s Ireland through the story of a parish priest's murder in the sleepy, snowed-in village of Ballyglass. In this exclusive piece, the author shares his favourite novels by one of his literary heroes, Georges Simenon.

The Snow Was Dirty 

It’s a pity that most readers, hearing the name Simenon, immediately think: Oh yes, Maigret. But in fact Simenon, as he well knew, was at his best in what he called his romans durs, or ‘hard novels’. And this one is surely the hardest of them all. It’s set in Liège, Simenon’s hometown, during the war, among a cast of gangsters and low-lifes. An astonishing work, just short of first-rate because of a less than successful conclusion. A must-read, though.

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Following a nineteen-year-old lowlife in occupied Liège, Simenon’s astonishing novel about deceit and betrayal explores the darkest corners of society in the shadow of the violence and devastation of the war.
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The Saint-Fiacre Affair

This is one of the very best of the Maigret series. The Paris police inspector travels to the village of his birth, to investigate a predicted murder, which duly takes place. The opening scene, in which Maigret rises early on a winter morning in a provincial hotel, is superb. The plot, as usual, is preposterous. But one doesn’t read a Maigret for anything other than the atmosphere, the vividness and the human insights.

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The atmospheric thirteenth instalment in Simenon’s bestselling series sees Maigret return to his home village to solve a murder – but in order to get to the truth, the Inspector must face some troubling memories of his own.
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The Man Who Watched Trains Go By

A deeply unsettling study of a psychotic — the wonderfully named Kees Popinga — recounted with the lightest of touches. Simenon knew a great deal about the darkness of the human psyche, and his great gift, one of his great gifts, is to observe, and report, with an utterly unsentimental eye, on the doings of his fellow humans.

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A respectable Dutch businessman is overtaken by a dark impulse and begins a new lawless, violent life in Simenon’s jet-black, fiercely compelling masterpiece that mines the darkest recesses of the human mind.
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The Mahé Circle

An extraordinary study of a burgeoning and eventually fatal obsession. It is set on the holiday island of Porquerolles off the south coast of France, but is the story of a holiday in Hell, as the eponymous Mahé conducts his doomed pursuit of the girl in the red dress. Enigmatic, brooding, and wholly convincing.

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From the grandmaster of continental crime comes a tale of desire and obsession, as a holidaying doctor catches a glimpse of an irresistible young woman and becomes convinced that she'll offer him the way out of his drab existence.
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The Strangers in the House

The lawyer Hector Loursat has largely given up on life after his wife’s desertion. He spends each evening reading and drinking himself into oblivion. Then a murder is committed in his house and he determines to act as legal defence for the young accused. I can do no better than quote myself (from the LA Times, 2018): ‘the quintessential roman dur: direct, spare, sensuously atmospheric, hypnotic in its realism, and honest in a way that few novelists would dare to be.’

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An utterly gripping slice of existentialist noir from the creator of the Inspector Maigret series, The Strangers in the House follows a man who, after someone is murdered in his house, is shaken out of his life of denial and set on a relentless quest for the truth.
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