Francis Carco's Brumes is set in a grim sea port in Belgium, with a mixture of pretty unsavoury characters and activities. There's the menacing Dutchman Feempje, who runs the bar Montparnasse and who lost his good hand over a woman, and now wears a metal hook strapped to his forearm, capable of staving anyone's chest in. Feempje lives with Flossie, who serves in the bar and also dances in a back room – until she gets pregnant and, knowing it can't be by him as he's infertile, Feempje relegates her to a cold room at the back of the bar, where she appears to be losing her mind.
Across the road from the Montparnasse is the even more filthy and sleazy boarding house belonging to Kœtge, an alcoholic wreck of a forty-eight-year-old who also dabbles in selling cocaine. Down the road a little is a number of 'maisons', a euphemism for a set of houses with picture windows where the prostitutes put their wares on display, a little like the Amsterdam red-light area. These are owned by François-le-Balafré, scar-faced as his name suggests, who pimps for his lover Lulu-la-Parisienne. While opposite is the prostitute Geisha, who plans to save money and run away with her sober Pole lover Adolf Soter. But who's this old guy Lionel Poop, who seems to be stalking Geisha?
That's a question Feempje would like to have an answer to, and he stalks the stalker. Soon, it all comes out when Kœtge takes Poop to the Montparnasse and removes some contents of his wallet to show Feempje: there's a photo of Kœtge thirty years ago, photos of other girls, and a letter from a girl who is writing to Poop immediately before killing herself over him. It seems Poop was good at making girls kill themselves, and the reader learns of two he's done this to, although Kœtge wouldn't allow him to drive her to such extremes and backed off: but not before she got the ill-famed house from her banker lover.
And now, Poop showers expensive clothes and jewels on Geisha in an attempt to lure her away with him: can his technique succeed now he's so much older? Certainly the only suicide is of Flossie, and the police appear to be blaming that on Feempje.
But there are certainly more deaths in this novel, because almost the whole (relatively short) book is played out against a backdrop of medical activity: everyone is subjected to three jabs a week as the department of health attempts to eradicate something about which no one seems to have a precise knowledge: some kind of plague? I wondered if there was a pre-Camusian element here, if the plague were a symbol or metaphor for something, but nothing sprang to mind.
So I'm not sure what Carco's up to, writing a book which has such a strange, mysterious atmosphere. I'll keep a look-out and read the next Carco novel that comes my way, as it might give me more clues.