For reasons that I have not quite been able to pinpoint, over the last couple of years I have found myself reading more and more older crime fiction. The most recent of these was on the recommendation of a US crime writer I have recently had a bit to do with on Twitter, called Max Thrax, Georges Simenon’s The Snow Was Dirty – or Dirty Snow as it appears in some territories – originally published in 1946.
I had, of course, heard of Simenon but must come clean that before doing some research about him as a result of reading The Snow Was Dirty, knew virtually nothing about him or his work. Indeed, without any basis, I had dismissed as a writer of cosy procedurals.
No one knows exactly how many books Belgium born Simenon wrote over the course of his career. There are not many authors you can say that about. He started off in the 1920s, like so many mid century writers, as a pulp hack, working under a bewildering variety of pseudonyms. In the 1930s he started to churn what would become approximately 75 novels featuring the fictional French police detective, Jules Maigret, many of which were subsequently adapted for radio and the screen, large and small.
At some point in the 1930s, Simenon also penned what are known as his roman durs (dur being hard in French), a series of uncompromising stand alone noir novels. According to this 2020 piece in the London Review of Books, Simenson was bored with the Maigret novels and wanted to embark on works that all allowed him to experiment with his writing. This run of books, my understanding is that there are 18 in all, didn’t sell particularly well and the author went back to doing Maigret stories. But despite their poor commercial performance, the roman durs are now widely hailed as his best work. And The Snow Was Dirty, is viewed as the pinnacle of these.
The Snow Was Dirty is an uncompromising dark tale about a 19 year old sadistic pimp, aspiring gangster, and self confessed low life, Frank. He lives in an unspecified city in an unspecified part of Europe under German occupation. The Germans are never called by name and are only referred throughout the book as ‘the occupiers’. Frank lives with his mother, who runs a brothel out of their apartment. He is never short of food, which his mother procures from the black market, or sex, which he gets from the girls his mother employs, most of whom are young rural women who work for his mother for no other reason than they have a warm place to stay and enough to eat.
At odds with this seemingly easy lifestyle is the incredibly brutal world outside their apartment: a seemingly never ending winter and constant paranoia and suspicion as to who is working for the occupiers, who is working for the resistance, and who just wants to survive. One night, in a kind of existential wager with himself, Frank decides to wants to know what it is like to kill a human. He borrows a knife off a big talking gangster, Kromer, who may or may not also be a killer, and picks a target: a low level policeman who might also be a collaborator.
Frank kills the man, but while he is waiting for his target, Frank is seen by a tram driver called Holst, who lives in the apartment opposite his mother’s. Curious whether Holst will rat him out to the authorities for the murder, he becomes obsessed with the tram driver’s shy and somewhat awkward teenage daughter.
I won’t give any more details about the plot, except to say that this is just the start of Frank’s exploration of the psychological depravity that he is capable off. The most interesting aspect of the book is Simenon’s depiction of a society in which violence and betrayal are normalised behaviour. On one level, the occupiers rule the city with an iron hand. On the other, as long as the crime in question does not challenge the occupation’s authority, people like Frank are free to engage in acts ranging from theft to murder without any fear of retribution. Or so it appears.
I simply don’t know enough about Simenon to analyse what, if any motivations he had for writing The Snow Was Dirty, but I do find it interesting that he wrote it while he was living in the United States, which obviously gave him some perspective on the events of the war. More importantly, he had fled to the US after being accused of collaboration with the Nazi authorities during their occupation of France. The nature of the collaboration concerned allowing German publishers and filmmakers the rights to his novels. He was cleared of any official offence but the stain on his reputation lingered. A year earlier, his younger brother had also died in France’s colonial war in Indochina. Simenon’s brother had joined the French Foreign Legion on Simenon’s advice, as a way of escaping punishment for the brother’s own wartime collaboration
Simenon prose style is low key but razor sharp and he is able to masterfully convey the utter depravity and horror of Frank’s nightmare world with the slightest suggestion or small detail. This quality is emphasised by the deadpan, at times, almost bored way in which Frank recounts his activities. There is no emotional catharsis in The Snow Was Dirty, no real denouement. Frank just goes about his life and the terrible acts he commits with a cold logic that is as chilling as it is emotionless.
The Snow Was Dirty is one of the most devastatingly ruthless pieces of noir fiction I have ever read. I loved it and have ordered more of Simenon’s books, starting with the next one of his I am going to read, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By.