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Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon
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's review
Dec 02, 2009

it was amazing
Read from February 05 to April 08, 2012

The subtitle of Dirty Snow should have been, Take That Camus! While not a specific counter-punch to Camus’ L’Étranger, Simenon’s dark story of a murderer with no regrets shares a similar bent, neither pulling any punches with the reader. Maybe that is why the book, along with Simenon’s The Widow, which was published in the 40s as well, is so often compared to Camus first masterwork. While L’Étranger is infused with Camus’ humanistic worldview and the influences of his Algerian upbringing, Dirty Snow one-ups the score with Simenon’s cold remove and stripping of existential underpinnings. There is no philosophy to be had here — the world is an ugly place and that’s the short of it.

To call Dirty Snow bleak would be an understatement. It makes Simenon’s own The Man Who Watched Trains Go By read like a Sophie Kinsella novel. You leave this book covered in a disgusting film of human degradation (and yet somehow, all credit to Simenon, eagerly along for the ride). This is a testament to Simenon’s skill at trapping us in the head of man we detest, unable to look away as he drags us through one vile act to the next. There is no letup. We are never given leave of his gaze, never allowed a moment to gasp for clean air. And when the tables are finally turned on this horrible creature, we see the downfall through the antagonist’s eyes, causing our perception of him to change.

Set in an unnamed country occupied by an unnamed aggressor post an unspecific war, the book introduces us to one Frank Friedmaier, a young man who would like nothing more than to make his mark by murdering one of his fellow human beings. And down the toilet of human emotions we go. Frank is in some ways the definitive Simenon antagonist and we’re stuck with him, because there is no protagonist for readers to cheer on. A thug and a petty thief, he is cold, self-centered, childish, and hell-bent on being the black hole in the lives of anyone he comes into contact with. From the moment in the opening chapter where he jams a blade into an officer from the occupying forces, there is no turning back. Having lost his “virginity,” Frank is unleashed. His ego inflates, leading to more emotionless acts of cruelty that he inflicts on anyone in his path.

Simenon’ genius — and what ultimately sets Dirty Snow above L’Étranger in my eyes — comes in the final third of the novel. It was only a matter of time before Frank butted heads with the occupying forces. And here we discover who the true bad guys are. That scumbag Frank, who we’ve grown to hate in the first 2/3 of the book, now seems small compared to these oppressors and what they do to their captives on a daily basis. Simenon is almost responding directly to Camus: sure, anyone can be a murderer, but there is always a bigger thug with a larger stick waiting in the wings. Having been written in the time of Gulags and Nazi camps, Simenon reminds us that there is murder and then there is Murder.

A slight spoiler warning here: At the end of the book, there is a weird note, which William T. Vollman points out in his afterword (and somewhat defends). While some may take this as a poor attempt at a silver lining, I think one could see another reading of it: Frank is out of his head. What he sees is not there, having been pushed to the limits by his aggressors, and knowing full well what fate awaits him. In those final moments, he is dreaming of the only positive future he can conjure. Whereas Meursault found happiness in the indifference of the world, Herr Friedmaier finds no such solace.

Pair with: Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 2 by Earth – The perfect bleak soundtrack to Simenon’s stark, snow-bound nowhere Eastern-bloc country in occupied territory.
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02/05/2012 page 149
06/05/2017 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

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Alan good review Ken. Your link to 'Angels of Darkness' doesn't work..

message 2: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken Glad you enjoyed the review Alan. And many thanks for the heads up on the link. Should be fixed now.

Manny That scumbag Frank, who we’ve grown to hate in the first 2/3 of the book, now seems small compared to these oppressors and what they do to their captives on a daily basis.

I thought the treatment of Frank's interrogator was more ambiguous than that. From one point of view, he's a Nazi monster; from another, he's Frank's awakening conscience, or God. It's a bold idea!

message 4: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken An interesting assessment. Knowing Simenon's bent -- he certainly wasn't a religious fellow and somewhat self-centered -- and the post WWII environment when the book was written, I didn't see it that way. Especially in light of the continuous procession of guys being marched out to be shot. Those fellows are never indicated as having committed a specific crime -- an allusion to the Nazi camps and Gulags -- so if the interrogator was supposed to represent a conscience or God, it's a very dark and grim deity (and not one who seems to give a damn about repentance.

Manny if the interrogator was supposed to represent a conscience or God, it's a very dark and grim deity (and not one who seems to give a damn about repentance)

Oh, I don't know. Dark and grim sounds about right for Simenon. And about repentance, he lets Frank meet Sissy again - that's what he most wanted to do, right?

message 6: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken You're spot on there, dark and grim is Simenon's brand.

See, I saw the Sissy appearance as a delusion on Frank's part, so it didn't feel like repentance. Especially since it comes across like Holst just offering up his daughter (what type of man would do that after what Frank had done to her?). It's a complete fantasy on Frank's part, almost a denial of what he's done.

And granted, it's my bent as well -- I read Simenon as a very secular writer. He's dealing in gray areas -- murder is an act committed at different levels in the book. But there is very little discussion of right and wrong. Maybe that's why the book resonates so sharply as well. It's definitely not Crime and Punishment.

Manny It hadn't crossed my mind that the meeting with Sissy might be a delusion, but I agree it's also a possible reading. I guess I just didn't think of Frank as a delusional person. He comes across as very grounded in reality.

message 8: by Ted (new) - rated it 1 star

Ted Ken said "I saw the Sissy appearance as a delusion on Frank's part"
I wish I'd thought of that, it would have made that part of the book a little easier to believe. But the book is still a solid 2 stars for me.

Corey My favorite Simenon.

message 10: by Ken (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ken Corey wrote: "My favorite Simenon."

I have to agree with that. Definitely eclipsed The Man Who Watched Trains Go By.

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