Red Lights by Georges Simenon

“She needed a lesson.”

The characters in Simenon’s romans durs always make me think of rats stuck in traps of their own making. Steve and Nancy Hogan in Red Lights experience a nightmarish event that is entirely avoidable–but in a sense it’s also the natural consequence of the domestic politics of their strained marriage. It’s the beginning of the Labour Day weekend, and Steve and Nancy meet in a small New York bar that’s close to both of their offices. The plan is that they will drive to their Long Island home, grab a suitcase and then pick up their two children from summer camp in Maine. Well … that’s the plan, but the evening starts out in an ominous fashion as Steve chugs back alcohol while the television announcer makes dire predictions about the number of highway deaths that will occur over the course of the weekend.

A few drinks later, Steve and Nancy hit the road–with Steve stopping at bars every few miles. Steve and Nancy have been mildly irritated with each other all evening, but soon the tension in the car mounts in proportion to Steve’s alcohol consumption. Steve’s drinking always brings out resentments towards his wife–resentments that he feels he can’t express when sober. He finds Nancy too “perfect” and secretly hopes she gets a “good dose of the humility she so badly needed.” With an air of defiance, Steve stops at a remote, seedy bar, and Nancy threatens to leave. Steve pockets the ignition key and attracted to the flashing neon lights, he enters the bar. When he returns to the car, Nancy has disappeared ….

One of the main complaints Steve has about Nancy is the fact that she “always stayed on the rails.” But when Steve and Nancy each step outside of their nice middle class lives they meet violence and terror. Exactly what happens to Steve and Nancy unfolds in this suspenseful, mesmerizing thriller. Simenon maintains an emotional distance from his characters and creates an atmosphere that resonates with ominous overtones. If you enjoy the book, I highly recommend the film version Red Lights from French director Cedric Kahn.

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