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Night at the Crossroads

a review by Andrew Walser

The crossroads is as archetypal as symbols get. Think, for instance, of Oedipus’s encounter with his father, which happened, according to Sophocles, “near the branching of the crossroads,” or Robert Johnson’s deal with the devil, a central myth of American music. Night at the Crossroads draws on the power of this archetype. When a perplexing murder occurs outside Paris, the Inspector arrives at an isolated intersection marked only by two houses and a dingy garage. This crossroads serves, in the usual way, as a site for fateful decisions, but also becomes a meeting place for three sorts of stories – as if Simenon wanted, within the strict limits of his chosen form, to construct a kind of playful polyphony.

The first story is a bourgeois novel, set in an impeccably respectable house – a “small villa of millstone grit with a narrow garden, surrounded by a six-foot-high fence.” There we meet Émile Michonnet, an insurance salesman of such blandness and conventionality that he cares less about the jewel merchant’s corpse discovered in his new car than about whether the replacement vehicle comes in burgundy – the most fashionable color, apparently. With his gout and his penchant for lawsuits, Michonnet is a wicked parody of an entire class. So is his wife, who lurks behind curtains and spies on her neighbors, the way Gladys Kravitz used to on Bewitched. One might argue that this desire to snoop lies at the root of the bourgeois novel, and that the chief downside of the genre is that the objects of your attention – your focus for four or five hundred pages – may be as mundane as the Michonnets.

The second story is a Gothic novel, all morbidity and dread. It is set in the Three Widows, a ramshackle old mansion named after the ancient mother and two elderly daughters who barricaded themselves inside and exterminated each other in various lurid ways. I am tempted to read these widows as the Fates, making their decisions at the crossroads of each life –but, in any case, they are certainly generic signposts. The current residents of the house, the Andersens, are themselves unmistakably Gothic, a couple in whom the decaying nobility of Europe seems to have coalesced. Carl is an elegant but disfigured aristocrat, Else his alluring companion, and around them hangs a heavy air of incest and insanity. Small wonder Lucas confesses to his boss: “I get the sense that there’s something wrong with this case, something weird, almost malignant.” That Lucas wavers between exonerating Else completely and declaring her the “only poisonous thing” in the house is sadly characteristic of one kind of masculine psychology.

The final story is in some ways the most wholesome – a hardboiled crime novel, revolving around the tough customers who run the garage. Simple crime looks more tolerable next to decadence and rank hypocrisy. When Oscar, the garage owner, mocks Michonnet’s respectability and laughs at Else’s sensational tale – “’It’s just like a novel[!]’” – the comment reminds us that Simenon’s work claims to be sui generis, to possess a realism deep enough to escape generic conventions altogether.

Ultimately, we might see these disparate stories as stationed along the same road, poaching off the same transient energies. The myth of genre insists on separateness, but they all intersect at the crossroads called narrative – and it was in narrative, as Thornton Wilder observed, that Simenon was the genius of his century.

Simenon, Georges. Night at the Crossroads. trans. Linda Coverdale. London: Penguin, 2014. Print.

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