The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, translated by Linda Coverdale and published by Penguin Books, features Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. A Parisian detective who starred in an impressive seventy-five novels & twenty-eight short stories. Of the three Simenon books I’m reviewing The Hanged Man… is the most conventional – being a fairly straight forward detective novel. In it the off-duty Inspector Maigret spots a suspicious looking man at the train station and decides, seemingly on a whim, to follow him. He goes so far as to switch suitcases (“the kind sold in any cheap store, made of cardboard treated to look like leather”), board the same train and check into an adjoining room at the same seedy boarding house. Maigret watches through a keyhole as the man opens the suitcase, realizes it isn’t his and hurries off to find it.
He rushed back to the station, losing his way, asking for directions ten times, blurting out over and over in such a strong accent that he could barely be understood: ‘Bahnhof?’
He was so upset that, to make himself better understood, he imitated the sound of a train!
He reached the station. He wandered in the vast hall, spotted a pile of luggage somewhere and stole up to it like a thief to make sure that his suitcase wasn’t there.
And he gave a start whenever someone went by with the same kind of suitcase.
Unsuccessful, the man returns to his hotel room and the Inspector resumes his keyhole stakeout. Only to watch in horror as the man pulls out a revolver and shoots himself in the head. Everything that follows is Maigret’s attempt to unravel why the man committed suicide – for which he understandably feels a measure of guilt. Beginning his investigation with almost no information (an old, blood-stained suit and a false id) he sets off on a madcap chase, following the rapidly fading trail of a decade old murder from city to city, person to person – in a race against someone determined on making all the evidence disappear.
The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien is fast-paced and engrossing; written in short, choppy paragraphs and containing lots of dialogue. The kind of book you read in one sitting. Perhaps more shocking than the denouement is the discovery that the crime on which the novel’s plot hinges was based on an event from Simeon’s own life.
The President, translated by Daphne Woodward and published as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, is (again) entirely different. An aging French Premier – said to be based on Clemenceau – has retired to the Normandy coast. He is one of the “five great men” of his generation, but at 82 the only one left for him to engage in battle is Death. Until his final days are livened up by an unexpected and unhoped for diversion. Someone has been rifling through his personal effects. This is the story of a man whose mind has lost none of its acuity but whose body betrays him. And as the plot progresses it becomes clear that the mystery is less about who is searching than what has been hidden and why. The Premier is guarding a piece of paper that could topple the new French government.
“At forty years old, or at fifty, he had still believed himself to be a good judge of men, and would pronounce his verdicts without hesitation or remorse. At the age of sixty he had already been less sure of himself, and now he did no more than grope in the dark for momentary truths.”
Simenon maintains a claustrophobic atmosphere throughout the novel, confining his hero in an isolated house and making him completely dependent on caretakers. For a good portion of the story a storm rages outside and the power is out. Radio broadcasts report the news from Paris, also serving to spark the Premier’s memories. It is his last remaining link to the world he once dominated. Does he still? Should he still?
Three books, three different premises, conjuring three entirely different moods. Thus is the genius of Georges Simenon. He is the rare mystery writer who doesn’t merely assemble a puzzle for his readers, he also dictates the psychology by which it must be solved. These mysteries – the tones of the stories and the perspectives of the characters – are so different that it’s hard to believe that they were written by the same man. Yet despite each book having a different translator the writing style remains consistent and consistently good from one to another. The dialogue rings true. There’s the right balance of description and action. Beautiful phrases like “Today the dawn was colorless, sketched with white gouache and charcoal, and only the whiter glow of the thickening fog showed that the light was strengthening” are more striking because they are scarce.
It’s amazing, really, when you think about it. The author of almost two hundred books avoids the formulaic.
Gore Vidal once said in an interview that he used to be a famous novelist. But the category, he claimed, no longer existed. Perhaps that’s as much the fault of the novelists as the readers. Today publishers demand writers engage with readers on social media, but no one seems to demand that they be interesting. Newspapers – once a finishing school for writers – are disappearing. Journalists – adrenaline junkies trained on how to spin a story – are going the way of the dodo. Over the weekend I got into a brief discussion on the value of MFA programs. They are everywhere these days, blanketing the literary landscape like Kudzu vine. But does theory really trump experience in the making of better writers?
The old saying goes “write what you know”. That seems to have worked out amazingly well for Georges Simenon and his contemporaries – men and women who made it their mission to have something worth writing about.