The remarkable thing about Simenon’s output is less the huge number of novels and the speed at which they were written, than the consistently high quality of his prose and his seemingly inexhaustible well of characters and observations. Nevertheless, among 185 novels there is bound to be the odd dud and The Brothers Rico is one of those.
There is nothing wrong with the set-up. Eddie Rico is the middle of three brothers, born into the Brooklyn underworld. He has moved to Florida and set himself up as a racketeer, big enough to be a local player, but not powerful enough to ruffle the feathers of the real big-shots. Eddie has a nice house, a nice wife, two nice daughters and craves nothing more than the respectability of being invited to join the local country club. He might as well be a book-keeper or a car salesman, but he has been born into crime, and this being Simenon, he cannot escape his origins.
Eddie’s younger brother Tony has disappeared with his new bride and is suspected of having betrayed the Organization by talking to outsiders about its activities. Eddie is tasked with tracking him down. There is no question of him refusing. His guiding principle is that one must always ‘follow the rule’, by which he means slavishly respecting the hierarchy and diktats of the Organization – even if this means bringing about the demise of his own brother. This is all quite promising, but Eddie is not a character given to introspection and, as such, the moral dilemma in which he finds himself never takes on any real resonance. There is little sense of jeopardy or internal conflict. In Simenon’s best work the narrative unfolds from a single incident, triggered by an action or fatal flaw of the protagonist, but here the events are outwith Eddie’s control and as such he never seems fully involved. He is simply pulled along on a tide of external events.
Similarly, the odyssey Eddie undertakes to find his brother, from Florida to Washington State, New York and then – via a tedious series of flights – to California, never sparks into life. His encounters with the characters he meets along the way are unconvincing, and the descriptions of the various locations are colourless: a neighbourhood restaurant in Brooklyn is ‘a kind of long narrow hallway, with a counter and a few booths, serving hotdogs, hamburgers and spaghetti . . . Behind the counter, two cooks in soiled uniforms were working at the electric stoves. Waitresses in black dresses and white aprons were rushing back and forth.’ At the airport in Tuscon, ‘Most of the men … were wearing light-coloured cowboy hats and tight-fitting pants. Many were of the Mexican type.’
This is the sort of workaday stuff you might find in a tourist brochure, lacking Simenon’s usual eye for the telling detail that brings a scene to life. It’s a problem which crops up quite frequently in Simenon’s American novels, as if, adrift from his native environment, he is unable distinguish between what is mundane and what is noteworthy. It’s hard to imagine him writing such sluggish descriptions of a bar in Liège, Nice or Le Havre.
Following a visit to Simenon at his then home in Connecticut, the publisher Maurice Dumoncel read Les Frères Rico on the train home. It felt, he wrote, ‘like a translation of an American novel.’* While it must be said in mitigation that the Four Square Press edition is ill-served by a very clunky translation, he is spot on. In accordance with the novel’s underworld milieu, Simenon adopts a kind of hard-boiled vernacular which feels contrived and phoney. Lines like, ‘It was now six months since Carmine had stopped those five slugs of lead,’ seem parachuted in from another writer’s work. Similarly, the choice of character names – Boston Phil, Mike La Motte, etc – feel like they are lifted from the corniest pulp novel. Like so much in The Brothers Rico, they just don’t ring true. Simenon himself rated the novel highly, but this, I’m afraid, is one to file under ‘Completionists Only’.
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Les Frères Rico first published in 1952. Four Square Press edition, translated by Ernst Pawel, first published 1957.
* Quoted in Pierre Assouline, Simenon, p.283