The Snow Was Black

by Georges Simenon

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 932

The Snow Was Black begins in a cafe during winter, in a city occupied by unidentified troops, probably Nazis. Frank Friedmaier, nineteen years old, having borrowed a knife from a friend, Fred Kromer, decides to kill a noncommissioned police officer sitting at a nearby table with two women. Frank does not know the officer’s name; he has no apparent reason to kill, as he is not a member of the Resistance. Frank waits outside in an alley, his back against the wall of an unoccupied building, in the darkness, for his unwary prey to pass. He hears footsteps; he sees his neighbor, Gerhardt Holst. He realizes that Holst has recognized him and will know that he is responsible for the murder, but Frank is not deterred.

At home in his mother’s apartment, where she keeps a small brothel for the use of the officers of the occupying army, there is the warmth of four working fireplaces and a cornucopia of food donated by the patrons. In a city of scarcity, in a building where their neighbors, including Holst and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Sissy, have little heat and food, Frank and Lotte, his mother, live in relative luxury served by two “employees,” Bertha and Minna, who live with them. Frank occupies Bertha and Minna’s beds, but he has no feeling for the women who satisfy his sexual appetites. He has no pity for the young violinist upstairs who is arrested for the murder of the police officer, or for the mother who mourns her only son and who will sicken and die from heartbreak. Frank is a pimp, a procurer for his mother; he deals in the black market; he associates with louts and miscreants. Even Sissy, who is infatuated with him, cannot long retain his interest. Frank takes Sissy to the cinema and to the cafe, where Fred Kromer sees her for the first time. Later, in the cafe, Frank tells Kromer about Sissy, tantalizing his lecherous business partner, whom he despises, with the prospect of an introduction. In turn, Kromer talks about a general of the occupying army who is a collector with a lust for old watches and who will pay a good price for any that the dealer can obtain. Fifty-fifty, says Frank; fifty-fifty, responds Kromer.

Provided with a car and two accomplices by Kromer, Frank goes to a nearby village, where he had lived as a child, to the home of the old watchmaker, Vilmos, who years before had wound a set of antique watches in the ear of the young Frank. Vilmos is dead, but his sister is forced to divulge the hiding place of the watches, and, because she identifies “little Frank,” without mercy, without hesitation, without a scintilla of humanity, he murders the elderly woman.

Frank is capable of any enormity. He plots with Kromer to lure Sissy into a darkened bedroom in his mother’s apartment. Frank and Kromer will switch places so that the latter may possess the virginal Sissy. The conspiracy is thwarted; Sissy turns on a light, screams Frank’s name, and escapes into the street, leaving behind a purse with the key to her apartment. It is still winter. It is dark and it is cold, and Sissy wanders aimlessly outside in an area of vacant lots, without stockings, over banks of snow. Fearful that she will die of exposure, Frank attempts to find her to return the apartment key, but she mistakes his motives and eludes him. Later, she is brought home and nursed by her father.

Inexplicably, Holst says nothing to Frank and does nothing. Frank is drinking...

(This entire section contains 932 words.)

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more heavily, flashing a large roll of bills, the proceeds of the robbery-murder. He is restless and reckless; he starts arguments; he has vague premonitions of torture and incarceration. Then, before Christmas, when he least expects it, he is taken into custody by the authorities, ironically for a crime for which he is suspected but which he did not commit.

In a former school building, in a classroom converted into a cell, Frank lives in solitary confinement. He hears other prisoners, sees them thrust into a courtyard to be shot, listens to their moans and to their feeble attempts to communicate with one another. He is taken to an office and questioned by an army officer, who, losing patience, hits Frank with a brass ruler, knocking out three of his teeth and bloodying his mouth. Returned to his cell, Frank sees a woman at a distant window hanging out her wash and fantasizes about her life and that of her child and husband—an ordinary life, a happy one offering a contentment for which he seems to yearn, and that he will not know. Frank is then questioned by another officer, the “Old Gentleman,” more skillfully, persistently, and without violence. The interrogations go on for long periods of time, Frank seated on a stool without a back or standing, worn down because his sleep is constantly interrupted; the “Old Gentle-man” with infinite patience, seemingly omniscient, chain-smoking, the butts overflowing a small ashtray. Frank is visited by his mother, who is allowed to bring him food and clothing; she tries to persuade him to cooperate with the authorities. Nevertheless, Frank is still recalcitrant, until he is promised a visit from Holst and Sissy. Frank wants that; he becomes more malleable, more willing to provide information. Holst and Sissy come; Holst forgives Frank, and Sissy declares her love for him. Frank has received absolution; he confesses to the two murders and goes contentedly, almost exultantly, before the firing squad.