Simenon is best remembered for his Inspector Maigret novels, but I am trying to work my way slowly through this prolific author’s more than 100 romans durs (hard novels). Although I am a rabid Simenon fan, I was a bit skeptical when I picked up The Brothers Rico as it’s atypical for its American setting and its focus on organised crime.
Some of Simenon’s novels concern middle-class protagonists who are derailed by fate from their lives of boring bourgeois respectability. Cast adrift (sometimes physically, sometimes mentally), they frequently embark on a life of crime or sink into the bowels of a lurid underworld. These protagonists seem to be ‘nice’ respectable people simply because fate handed them certain cards, and some plots underscore the idea that these characters will take to a life of crime with zest if given the opportunity. So I was curious to see how Simenon wrote about characters who chose the Mafia as a way of life. What moral quibbling, I asked myself, could exist in these pages?
In The Brothers Rico, although the story is a change of pace for Simenon, the author makes it clear that he is the master of his multiple fictional worlds. This is a superb and deceptively simple novella that explores guilt, divided loyalties, the sticky depths of human behaviour, and the mercurial ability to lie to oneself.
The protagonist of The Brothers Rico is Eddie Rico. At 38, he’s the eldest of the three Rico boys, born and raised in Brooklyn by their widowed mother. Mamma Rico still lives in Brooklyn and runs a sweet shop. Years before, Eddie’s father was gunned down and killed by a bullet intended for Sid Kubik. Kubik is now a big man in the Organisation, and he’s acted as a benefactor to the Rico boys ever since they lost their father.
When the book begins, Eddie Rico is settled in Florida. He kids himself that he’s out of the Organisation, and while he’s out of the murkier side of their activities, in reality he manages their West Florida gambling operations. Eddie is a slick businessman. He’s never cheated, he’s never refused to do anything asked of him, and he’s been a good employee. In return, Eddie’s been amply rewarded. He has a large house pretentiously called “Sea Breeze” located “in the most fashionable part of Santa Clara between the lagoon and the sea.” He runs a legitimate, profitable business, the West Coast Fruit Emporium. Eddie, called “boss” by his employees and various tradesmen is a respected man, and he’s loved and cherished by his wife, Alice and three children. Eddie is a “fastidious man” and he feeds his self-image by wearing only the most expensive clothes and pampering himself with twice weekly manicures and facial massages:
“He was no bigshot. he was never mentioned in the papers and only rarely talked about in the bars of New York, New Jersey or Chicago. But in his own territory he was boss. And every single night club paid up without a fuss.
None of them ever tried to welsh any more. He knew his figures too well. He never got mad, never uttered any threats. On the contrary, he always talked quietly, used as few words as possible, and everyone understood.”
There are vague rumblings that Eddie’s world is beginning to collapse. The book opens with blackbirds disturbing his sleep, and the very first warning comes that morning in a guarded letter from his mother. She wants to know if Eddie has seen either of his younger brothers, Gino or Tony. Gino is supposed to be in California, and Tony has simply disappeared. The letter hints that the whereabouts of the two youngest Rico brothers is connected to a Grand Jury investigation into the murder of underworld figure Carmine–a man who “stopped those five slugs of lead,” and Mamma Rico warns “there’s a rumour that someone’s been singing.”
Another event to break the pattern comes when Eddie gets the order to hide Brooklyn gangster, Curly Joe. Perhaps it’s not so odd that Eddie is asked to hide Joe, but it’s Joe’s derisive, disrespectful manner that begins to sound alarm bells in Eddie’s head. But the most alarming event in Eddie Rico’s day is the unannounced arrival of his brother, Gino. Gino tells Eddie that Tony has gone into hiding, swears the Organisation intends to kill Tony if they find him, and he asks Eddie to track Tony down and get him out of the country. Gino is evading the mob, and in his reluctance to trust Eddie, Gino is not particularly forthcoming with information. There’s a lingering suspicion between the brothers and Eddie’s first response is to curse his brothers’ stupidity:
“Eddie hated talking about such things. It was all very remote now, almost in another world. Deep down, he would have preferred not knowing. It is always dangerous to know too much. Why hadn’t his brothers gotten out like he had?”
With Gino’s departure, a net begins to close slowly over Eddie. It’s quite clear to the reader that the net was firmly around Eddie all these years, yet he was either oblivious of its existence or happily in self-denial. First, he is summoned to Miami where he meets Sid Kubik and his henchman Boston Phil. While Kubik’s demeanour is the almost the same as usual, that veneer of affected emotional attachment slips when he asks Eddie about his brothers and asks him to track down Tony….
The story presents Eddie Rico as a confident man whose self-assurance is gradually stripped away as the story unfolds. Eddie’s day begins with his self-congratulatory routines, and the dark uneasy undercurrents in his life are assuaged by his material wealth and the respect of his employees. This all shifts, and under orders to find his brother Tony, Eddie begins the hunt, exploiting his mother, and breaking her trust. The Rico brothers find themselves in the deadly position of divided loyalty. Is their duty to the Mafia, the family or to themselves? While Tony makes his stand quite clear, Gino and Eddie make different choices. The book successfully builds with tension and also illustrates a growing paranoia in Eddie. As the net tightens, every move he makes is anticipated, and he’s shadowed every step of the way. This, of course, underscores one of Simenon’s themes–the inability to escape one’s fate–even though his characters all too often create cages of their own making. As Rico searches for Tony, he runs into many old friends and acquaintances. Do they treat him with veiled contempt or is it Rico’s imagination? Perhaps Rico’s greatest humiliation is that in spite of his intelligence, his years of faithful service, his square dealing with the Organisation, he is still a little man who’ll do what it takes to protect his own skin.
Of particular note is the motif of a mole on Eddie’s face which is mentioned frequently in the novel. Its presence disturbs Eddie but he mostly ignores it except when he cuts it during shaving, but the mole troubles him, niggling away like a conscience–an unpleasant reminder of morality.
It’s worth noting that the females in the book are presented quite differently from their cinematic counterparts. In the book, Eddie Rico selects an Italian wife who will understand and ask no questions, but in the 1957 film version, his wife is a hysterical shrew. While Tony’s wife is made of steel, the cinematic version is a clingy woman who faints when the going gets tough. Similarly, Mamma Rico is a canny old woman who knows what’s going down in Brooklyn, but the film presents her as an emotional woman who turns to religion in between tears.