Two novels of suspense: The Ghost by Robert Harris, and Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Georges Simenon

April 24, 2008 at 1:32 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I was going to entitle this post: “Two Thrillers,” but I decided that while that term certainly applies to the Harris novel, it’s rather less descriptive of the Simenon. Then I thought about the fact that the creation of suspense is more to do with the craft of storytelling than it is with a specific genre of fiction. After all, I’ve read numerous mysteries in which there was hardly any suspense at all, and I’ve read love stories in which the suspense is positively excruciating. (Joanna Trollope is very good at that sort of thing; so, for that matter, is Jane Austen.)

Then I decided not to worry about any of it and just start writing!

The eponymous ghost in Robert Harris’s novel is actually a ghostwriter. His task is to produce a readable memoir purportedly written by Adam Lang, a charismatic former prime minister. Lang had been an extraordinarily popular and effective politician until he insisted that Britain support the American president’s war on terror. Sound familiar – Bush’s poodle, etc.? Well, yes, there’s more than hint of Tony Blair in Adam Lang, but as the novel’s plot unfolds, it becomes clear that we’re dealing with a “what if” scenario that is at a pretty far remove from Blair’s present circumstances.

The novel’s action begins in Great Britain, but the scene quickly shifts to Martha’s Vineyard, where Lang, his wife Ruth, and the rest of his entourage are holed up for the time being. It’s the dead of winter, and the idea is to keep Lang out of the public eye, sequestered on the remote, sparsely populated Vineyard while work on the memoir gets under way. Actually, there already exists a completed memoir, but it is considered to be all but unreadable. It had been written by a former close associate of Lang’s, Michael McAra. Alas, McAra is not available to revise his work: some two weeks prior, his body had been found washed up on a secluded cove on the island. The new ghostwriter’s task is to rework the existing material into a readable, saleable form. It seems like a fairly straightforward assignment, but it turns out to be anything but.

What seems at first like a fairly simple set-up gets complicated very quickly. The escalating crisis seems all the more urgent due to Harris’s terrifically effective use of first person narration. By severely limiting the point of view to that of the writer, we are forced to share his bewilderment, a bewilderment that soon shifts to unease and finally becomes full blown fear. The more answers he gets, the more questions he has. And no sooner has he started to make progress on the book than a nasty accusation against Lang, already being played up in the press, becomes the basis for possible legal action by an international tribunal.

And still, there lingers a particularly disturbing question:Just how did Michael McAra die? And what does his death imply with regard to the fate of his successor?

Robert Harris has produced a thriller in the classic mode. The Ghost is an edge-of-the-seat page turner; the quality of the writing is consistently high, while in depth characterization is by no means sacrificed on the altar of a fast paced plot. But I would expect no less from this incredibly versatile author of two historical novels that I thoroughly enjoyed: Pompeii and Imperium. Would I place The Ghost in one of my favorite fiction categories, “thrillers with brains?” Most definitely.

The “ghost” himself is a flawed but fundamentally decent human being; I was rooting for him throughout. And by the way – I would refer to him by his proper name – if only I knew it…

*********************************************

A woman walks into a police station in Paris to report her husband missing. This seemingly prosaic opening presages a jarring, baffling series of events in Monsieur Monde Vanishes, a 1952 novel by Georges Simenon.

AsI read on, I fully expected to be following a police investigation while checking in periodically with la famille Monde. Instead, I found myself traveling alongside Monsieur Monde himself, as he disappears further and further into the interior of France. (I’m not giving much away here; this change in point of view occurs in the latter part of the book’s first chapter.)

Norbert Monde works for Monde and Company, a firm of brokers and exporters founded by his grandfather in 1843. He and his wife had both been married before; each has a son, and Norbert also has a married daughter.

Like Louis Thouret in Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard, Norbert Monde lives a life solidly grounded in the bourgeois milieu of mid-twentieth century France. And like Thouret, he has reached a crucial juncture and knows that in order to avoid a terrible crisis, he must radically change that life. Louis Thouret has been forced to take drastic action due to the loss of his job. Monsieur Monde, on the other hand, is quite secure in his employment. In fact, he is quite secure in all facets of his existence. and it is that very security from which he feels impelled to flee.

At first, Monsieur Monde seems curiously passive. Events carry him forward willy-nilly: “He was not thinking of Madame Monde; he was not thinking of anything. He was conscious of moving restlessly in the midst of an outsize universe.” He continues in this mode until a fateful encounter changes everything.

One of the best things about Monsieur Monde Vanishes is Simenon’s vivid depiction of the demi-monde of mid twentieth century France. Within this twilight world, Norbert Monde makes his way through a landscape that offers no ready made road maps:

He was a man who, for a long time, had endured the human condition without being conscious of it, as others endure an illness of which they are unaware. He had always been a man living among other men and like them he had struggled, jostling amid the crowd, now feebly and now resolutely, without knowing whither he was going.

And now, in the moonlight, he suddenly saw life differently, as though with the aid of some miraculous X-ray.

I admit that it took me a while to catch the rhythm of this novel. Once I did, I was mesmerized. In a post that appeared on his blog last month, Martin Edwards quotes John Banville’s praise of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels. They were, Banville avers, instrumental in his decision to try his hand at crime fiction (which he now writes as Benjamin Black). All I can say is, small wonder.

6 Comments

  1. Peter said,

    Great article! I love suspense novels and will be keeping an eye out for these two you’ve reviewed. I’ve just finished reading Mary Martin’s “The Osgoode Trilogy” and found it a great thrill ride through engaging, believable characters, devilish villains and an emotionally charged storyline that builds to a gripping climax! Worth checking out.

  2. The Bookshelf said,

    I haven’t tried reading those. Thanks for the reviews! 🙂

  3. Local booklovers, mark your calendars! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] are five titles that I’ll be talking about: Cleaver by Tim Parks; The Ghost by Robert Harris; The Graving Dock by Gabriel Cohen; Best American Magazine Writing 2007; and In […]

  4. Georges Simenon « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] currently re-reading Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Georges Simenon. I’ll be leading a lecture discussion on Simenon and this novel at the […]

  5. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Fossum Half Broken Things and Puccini’s Ghosts – Morag Joss Monsieur Monde Vanishes – Simenon The Ghost – Robert Harris Blue Heaven – C.J. Box Suffer the Little Children, A Sea of Troubles, Girl of […]

  6. The eternal fascination of Rome « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] on the life of Cicero. (The versatile Robert Harris is also the author of the contemporary thriller The Ghost, the novel upon which the film The Ghost Writer is based.  […]

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