What a fascinating pair to read back to back. Payment Deferred is a very modern psychological thriller which hooks the reader in from the start: an astonishing work to come up with in the 1920s by a young man at the start of his career. The Snow Kimono might also be defined as a psychological thriller, as long and meandering as Forester’s is to the point. And, again in contrast, Henshaw’s novel is the first he’d written for 25 years, having a normal career after realising that there would be no money in writing for him.
I suspect that Henshaw is too clever for me. I spent too much time wondering what I was doing. Whereas CS Forester knows exactly what you are doing. Following the journey this simple question takes you on: will the murderer get away with his deed? And despite – or perhaps because of – the implications of the title, the reader is sort of barracking (in the Australian usage of the word) for the petty man who acts on this big idea.
The Guardian said of Simenon’s books that they
… focus on the tensions that lead a person to an extraordinary act such as murder. Through Maigret, who works primarily from intuition rather than procedural techniques, Simenon explores the psychology of his protagonists. The focus on people and setting is emphasised by the extremely spare language which is a feature of all his work.
The Encyclopedia Britannica (1993) said ‘Simenon’s central theme is the isolated existence of the neurotic, abnormal individual. Employing a style of rigorous simplicity, he evokes a prevailing atmosphere of neurotic tensions with sharp economy.’
This could so easily be a description of Payment Deferred, published five years or so before Simenon’s first non-pulp books. I wonder if that’s a coincidence? Equally the setting, a down-at-heel neighbourhood, a lower middle-class family who are living beyond their means and with nothing much to show for it. And a one-off opportunity. Never for one moment does William Marble think of using his position in the bank to illegally syphon off funds to sort his situation. But when a nephew appears out of the blue with a large amount of money in his pocket, he conceives on the spot a murder. That juxtaposition of moral lines is always fascinating to observe.
From there on things could scarcely have gone better for Marble, but his psychological spiral downwards is inevitable. He isn’t a psychopath, in other words. Just a rather unpleasant, unattractive loser whose wife feeds off his odd kind word and forgives him everything, including the murder when she finally figures it out. And then, despite her best intentions, she is the undoing of him. It’s a really neat story.
The Snow Kimono is full of exquisite description of place, exactly as a Japanese work should be. Overfull when it first went to an editor, I gather, who insisted that some 40K of words be removed. Even then, I don’t know if that decision was harsh enough. But then perhaps there was a danger that it would be trimmed to a point where it became obvious that none of it needed to be there.
I really don’t mean to be rude to the book in saying this. It ran the gauntlet of several dozen rejections before not only being accepted for publication, but also becoming the winner of a prestigious prize, all monies gratefully received. It is beautiful. But the amalgamation of the stories in it were’t adequate for me. What has the Inspector’s life got to do with the story he is meanderingly and episodically told by his odd neighbour? I didn’t feel like any of it fit together properly. I don’t really understand why it couldn’t instead have been a story, more simply and economically related, of the neighbour’s experiences.
Am I being unfair in saying that? I think Henshaw must be a totally amazing person and I’d love to invite him to dinner and fawn over his erratic, episodic literary career which is even more unlikely than the fiction he weaves. But I still didn’t like this novel enough and it’s one of those times where I feel like I’ve let a book down.
I can’t believe Payment Deterred isn’t a celebrated classic and I’m most grateful to Kate McCallum for giving it to me.