So we know that Ian McEwan loves to build his novels around the critical crossroads moment – the moment when a life on the rails goes off it. Does anyone know if he is in any way influenced by Georges Simenon?
Steven and Nancy Hogan are driving to pick up their children from camp in Maine. It’s Labour Day and the bank holiday traffic is horrendous. Yet Steve (incomprehensibly in this day and age but obviously not so in 1953, when this was written) insists on taking a few drinks despite the fact that he is driving. Husband and wife begin to bicker as he stops at one bar after another on the way. Finally they approach a shabby looking bar and that moment comes:
“If you stop,” Nancy was saying, carefully pronouncing each syllable, “I warn you I’ll go on alone.”
It gave him a shock. For an instant he stared at her, incredulous, and she met his gaze steadily. ….
Perhaps nothing would have happened, and he would have given way, if she had not added:
“You can always come on to the camp by bus.”
He felt his lip twist in a queer sort of smile and, as calm as she was herself, he reached for the ignition key, which he took out and put in his pocket.
Nothing of the kind had ever happened to them before. He could not turn back now. He was convinced that she needed a lesson.
And so he leaves and thus begins the night which gradually strips Steve of all his self-delusions … and his hitherto comfortable existence. Told in the matter-of-fact way of the quotation cited, the reader experiences the story from Steve’s point-of-view. While I was miles ahead in character analysis – it didn’t take me as long as it took Steve to work out what an idiot he is – I didn’t anticipate all the narrative twists and turns fuelled by bad choice upon bad choice. Actually I should have because Steve takes Nancy’s departure as an excuse to go on a bender (or to enter “the tunnel” in his parlance) and never did a drunk make a good decision.
This bender lands him in deep, hot water. Yet there’s no sense of justice because of the consequences to his poor wife.
Life at the end of Steve’s tunnel is not light.
Red Lights is a fast compulsive read, and it was my second Simenon “roman dur” (hard psychological thriller). When I read Dirty Snow at the beginning of the year, I suspected that I’d found something seriously addictive. Red Lights has confirmed that instinct and you know, what? I’m going to let it happen. If I can find a definitive list of Simenon’s romans durs, I shall add them to my completist page. In the meantime, I shall work my way through all the NYRB Simenon titles. It’s probably the best place to start with the author of over 200 novels.