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la nuit du carrefour

12 april 2012

In writing about the plots of novels, especially murder mysteries, I often bend over backwards to avoid "spoilers." This creates some problems in writing about murder mysteries, because the intricacies of their plots and solutions can be all that distinguish one from another. I'm going to change my philosophy somewhat, though. Take Georges Simenon's novel La nuit du carrefour, for instance. It was published in 1931. In order to read it, I had to resort to InterLibrary Loan, and it took two weeks to get a copy. The copy came from the University of Alaska Library, and hadn't been checked out since 1992. Not only am I likely the only person in the United States to read this novel this year, but on top of that, nobody reads this website. I think I can safely spoil the hell out of this one.

Simenon's Maigret novels are typically psychological explorations. Often the murderer is ill-hidden or not hidden at all. Even when there's a considerable enigma at the heart of the novel, it's more important to understand the complicated mechanisms at the hearts of its characters.

And then, every once in a while, Simenon just wanted to write a novel full of gangsters, where shots keep ringing out in the dark, and desperate types kill their colleagues over trunkloads of francs or briefcases full of diamonds. Such a novel is La nuit du carrefour. "A Night at the Crossroads" would be the English title, and there's a certain English quality to the setting: three lonely households at a rural intersection, each hiding secrets behind a respectable façade. One of the houses contains a dead diamond dealer in the front seat of a garaged car. You expect a tidy murder committed by a defrocked vicar. Indeed, Maigret eventually assembles all the suspects. But the scene is less Hercule Poirot than Public Enemy:

Les prisonniers étaient toujours alignés contre un mur, mais dans un ordre moins parfait. Et ils étaient au moins trois qui ne se laissaient nullement impressioner par la police: M. Oscar, son mécanicien Jojo et l'Italien Guido Ferrari. (156)

[The prisoners were still lined up against a wall, but in sloppier order. And at least three of them weren't impressed by the police at all: Oscar, his mechanic Jojo, and the Italian Guido Ferrari.]
The Italian Guido Ferrari has a date with the guillotine at the end of the novel. The others are accomplices in an intricate scheme for receiving, and sometimes hijacking, stolen goods. But tough guy Guido, who barely figures in the plot, is the source of the many shots ringing out in the novel's nights.

La nuit du carrefour is less interested in its murderer than in the man that the murderers are framing for the crime. Dane Carl Andersen is a curiously trig character who has left his native land in company with his sister. Anyone who's read the book of Genesis knows that she's really his wife, and Andersen has read it more often and more agonizingly than others. Committed to the higher life, he is determined to lead a principled, cultured life in his country of exile. So it's rather unfortunate that he's taken a home across the street from a couple of desperate fences.

Andersen never flinches as life turns him more into Job than Abraham. Meanwhile, Maigret gets more play out of his revolver than is usual, and at one point even gets to tie a minor tough guy to a bed with lengths of electrical wire. Sometimes you have to let your inner Sam Spade come through.

Simenon, Georges. La nuit du carrefour. 1931. Paris: Presses Pocket, 1981.