I recently made a list of the 25 most important novels in my life and have been rereading them to see how well they’ve stood the test of time. I had included this short, harrowing crime novel on my original list. I must have first read it when I was a teenager or in my early twenties, and the impression it made on me was indelible.
The novel’s protagonist — Joseph Lambert, a successful business owner — causes an accident that kills a busload of schoolchildren in the small town in France where he lives and works. The opening line is “It was brutal, instantaneous.”
Lambert was distracted at the time of the accident because his hand was up the dress of his mistress sitting in the seat next to him. Lambert drives off, his mistress hardly bats an eye, and so begins his struggle with his conscience.
First published in 1955, the cover of my version shows a woman’s crudely drawn ass lying across the road and includes the accurate description “A powerful study in sexual obsession and guilt.”
Lambert is as unlikeable a character as there is fiction. He cares little for his wife, he has sex with his secretary as well as other women, he’s obnoxious and insulting when he’s drunk, and, of course, he left the scene of a horrific accident for which he is responsible.
And yet, it’s Simenon’s mastery as a writer that also makes Lambert, if not sympathetic, then at least fascinating. The author has a deep understanding of his characters’ psyche and motivation, and the reader eagerly follows along as the novel progresses quickly to its inevitable and surprising conclusion.
This must have been one of those first novels I read in which the main character is an anti-hero. Does it still belong on my list of 25? I’m still undecided about that. It’s certainly not a great novel, but the psychological aspects are fascinating and Simenon has definitely influenced me as a writer.