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les inconnus dans la maison

7 july 2016

Georges Simenon's Inconnus dans la maison is celebrated for its central character. The implausibility of the plot proceeds directly from that character's eccentricity. Les inconnus turns out to be one of Simenon's most upbeat and hopeful novels. At least, it's as upbeat and hopeful as a story about a squalid murder in a depressed alcoholic's neglected household can get. But considering the rest of Simenon's œuvre, it's a pretty positive book.

Hector Loursat gave up on life awhile back. A talented lawyer, a pillar of society in his small town, Loursat let things go to hell after his wife left him. He's allowed his daughter Nicole to grow up without any parental attention, and she's suddenly a grown woman, capable, sexually experienced, yet a stranger to her father even while she still lives in the family mansion.

All Loursat really likes to do is drink red wine and read old books in a comfy chair … I'm afraid I can identify a little too much with him, which is perhaps Simenon's intention. His ménage is functional enough. The trouble comes when a shot rings out and Loursat finds a dead stranger in one of his spare bedrooms. Could Nicole have killed the man? Could her boyfriend Émile? Or was the killer another of their party-never-ends circle of youngsters, a gang that had sideswiped the stranger on the road and dragged him back to convalesce – and spread his debauched influence – in the Loursat house?

When Émile becomes the prime suspect in the murder case, Loursat emerges from his torpor to defend him, like some sort of alcoholic Perry Mason on the comeback trail. It's not concern for his daughter that motivates Loursat. Instead, it's an identification with the young people and their sensuality, their risk-taking, their ability to lead a life that he has abandoned. This comes uncomfortably close at times to a kind of lust for his own daughter. Well, I said that the book was upbeat, not uncreepy.

Loursat shines in the ensuing, highly unlikely courtroom drama. (Small town or no, I can't believe that a material witness in a murder case would be allowed to defend his own daughter's fiancé in court.) The action proceeds briskly and (not too much of a spoiler, I hope) ends successfully. Loursat finds a new lease on life. As I said, for Simenon this is positively sanguine material.

Simenon, Georges. Les inconnus dans la maison. 1941. Paris: Gallimard, 1979.