If you’re a fan of the Maigret novels, I’d advise caution approaching The Stain in the Snow (originally published as La Neige etait Sale). Whilst Simenon’s policiers have the detective as a steady, (literally) weighty presence at their centre, this novel is altogether more unstable. Simenon described this and some of his other non-Maigret works as romans dur – hard novels – and it doesn’t take many pages for this description to be borne out. Stain‘s central character is Frank Friedmaier; at only nineteen, he is a pimp, a murderer and a thief, living in a brothel run by his mother. In his relentless pursuit of violence he reminded me of Alex, the central character in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Both young men act despicably, and are finally imprisoned, an experience that changes them in far-reaching and unexpected ways.
Rather than the plot-driven world of the Maigret books, here Simenon is more interested in the psychology of his characters, and what drives them to act. Not that this is always made clear; Simenon is wise enough to appreciate that motives are complex, slippery things, and not easily pinned down. Whilst he does hint that the roots of Frank’s behaviour may lie in his childhood, this is only part of the story – Frank is equally responsible for the choices he makes as an adult, and the life that stems from them.
Frank is certainly a man apart from the world around him. He commits two murders during the course of the book, and one further unspeakable act around which the novel pivots. Following on from this, Frank is suddenly taken into custody, but it is some time before he and the reader understand why he has been apprehended. He is interrogated relentlessly, but the lack of a clear objective on the part of his captors only adds to the overwhelming feeling of menace that permeates this part of the book.
Alongside its portrait of Frank, The Stain in the Snow conjures up a fascinating picture of a society under occupation. It was first published in 1948, only a few years after the end of the Second World War – a period which Simenon spent in France, and about which he later faced accusations of collaborating with the Germans. This is perhaps what makes his descriptions of a population living under severe restrictions – both in terms of rationing, and their ability to move freely around – so vivid. Simenon never names the city in which his novel is set, but the endless queues amongst the winter cold and the hunt for food and fuel feel that they have been drawn from life.
This is also a society that seemingly condones Frank’s actions. As his interrogation continues, it becomes clear that what really matters to those in charge is the maintenance of their authority, not the crimes Frank has committed. These are incidental, and Frank’s final confession – when it comes – is a voluntary one. He has been taken into custody for altogether different reasons – and yet it is through his time in prison that he finds the inner peace that has eluded him for so long.
I’d recommend The Stain in the Snow for anyone looking for a more unusual slice of noir. Whilst relatively short, Simenon’s writing style and penchant for moving between past, present and future in the space of a single paragraph mean that the book requires careful reading. It’s the kind of novel you really need to pay attention to, but one that rewards such patience with an experience that stays long in the memory.