Thu 1 Sep 2016
by Francis M. Nevins
Perhaps the first few items in this month’s column should have gone into the one for last month, which dealt with Georges Simenon, but that one was getting longish and I decided to save a few bits and pieces for a while. First I was going to say a few words about the careless proofreading, most unusual for a Crippen & Landru book, that I discovered in the recent Simenon collection The 13 Culprits. The funniest typo I found is when the name of the juge d’instruction Monsieur Froget is rendered as M. Forget.
If you’re familiar with the original French titles of various Maigret novels, you probably noticed the similarity between a few of those titles and a few of the short stories about other characters that I discussed last month, and may have wondered whether the novels were expanded versions of those short stories.
In one case I can answer with a definite No (or should I say Non?) because the short story in question has been translated into English. “Les Flamands” from Les 13 Coupables has no relation to the Maigret novel Chez Les Flamands (1932; first translated as The Flemish Shop) beyond the fact that they both deal with Flemish characters.
The other title similarities come from collections not translated into English. Are there any connections beyond the titles between “L’écluse no. 14″ from Les 13 Mystéres and the novel L’écluse No. 1 (1933; first translated as The Lock at Charenton), or between “Le chien jaune” (“The Yellow Dog”) from Les 13 Enigmes and the Maigret novel of the same title (1931; first translated as A Face for a Clue)? It’s anyone’s guess but I suspect the answers here are also Non and Non. If any Simenonophile out there knows for sure, please say something.
I had read A Face for a Clue years ago but happened to pick it up again recently and found that among other things it offers us a credibility sandwich (or should I say a credibility croissant?) that would daunt a Dagwood. The yellow dog of the original title belongs to a Frenchman who was tricked into smuggling dope into the U.S. on his boat and then betrayed to the authorities by his companions in crime and sentenced to a long term in Sing Sing. Would you believe that he got to keep the mutt throughout his time in the slammer? The dog is still with him when he’s released and comes back to France for revenge on his former partners. Yeah, right.
And yet another “yeah, right” to, of all people, Fred Dannay. In an introduction to the Simenon story he ran in the August 1948 EQMM he tells us that Georges Simenon is a pseudonym and that the author’s real name is Georges Sim! How did Fred come to make this mistake?
I suspect it dates back to his first meeting with Simenon, which took place in late 1945 or early ‘46, soon after the creator of Maigret left Europe for Montreal and later for the U.S., and is described briefly in the intro to another Simenon story (July 1946). Since Fred spoke very little French and Simenon very little English, the meeting was moderated, as it were, by Simenon’s then agent, who was apparently bilingual. “Your editor’s head swung back and forth between M. Simenon and the interpreter as if we were watching a tennis match at Forest Hills.” Under these conditions any kind of misunderstanding can happen. Remember the telephone game?
During the years when Fred was first publishing Simenon in translation, he was also running a number of stories by Gerald Kersh (1911-1968), who claimed to have been born in Russia although his actual birthplace was Teddington-on-Thames.
The protagonist of all the tales Fred ran during the Forties was Karmesin, a huge old East European with a thick Nietzsche mustache who, as Kersh never tires of telling us, is either the world’s greatest criminal or its greatest liar. In each story Karmesin tells Kersh about a super-masterful crime he brought off years before.
Recently I re-read some of these for the first time in years and discovered that Karmesin often drops various contemptuous East European epithets. One of these is “Ptoo!” Another, which interested me more, is “Pfui!” That of course is also a favorite word of crime fiction’s premier character of East European descent: Nero Wolfe.
I began wondering which of these two was first with the word and, checking my back issues of EQMM, discovered that Karmesin began using the P word in his very first exploit, published simply as “Karmesin” in the London Evening Standard for May 19, 1936 and reprinted in EQMM for April 1948 as “Karmesin, Bank Robber.”
Did Nero Wolfe use the word earlier than 1936? Rex Stout wrote only two Wolfe novels that preceded Karmesin’s debut: Fer-de-Lance (1934) and The League of Frightened Men (1935). If anyone cares to go through those titles on a Pfui hunt, please let us know. Either way it’s most likely that neither author knew of the other at the time the Pfuis began pflying, but I’m still curious.
Veteran readers of this column will remember my long-standing interest in that useful and sweet-singing little amphibian known to biologists as bufo bufo and to the rest of us as the toad. For no rational reason, the toad has long been the most hated animal in literature, and mystery writers have not been immune to anti-bufonism.
In five separate and distinct novels written fairly close together, Robert B. Parker had his PI Spenser describe someone as looking like a — yeah, you guessed it. Re-reading Gerald Kersh’s Karmesin stories, I discovered that in one of them, first published as “Karmesin and the Big Flea” (Courier, Winter 1938-39) and reprinted in EQMM for July 1949 as “Karmesin, Blackmailer,” our master criminal’s adversary is a certain Captain Crapaud. Anyone know what crapaud means in English? You guessed it again. Pfui!
In Chapter 14 of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister (1949) Philip Marlowe encounters a character named Joseph P. Toad, who looks like Sydney Greenstreet but converses in toughguyspeak. Parker may hold the prize for insulting toads most often but Kersh and Chandler seem to be the only crime writers who actually gave that name to a character. Double Pfui! And a hearty Ptoo! for good measure.