Georges Simenon inspired many writers of psychological crime, such as Patricia Highsmith (as she once told me at a publisher’s launch party in London – Simenon’s name caused her to brighten up in a way that my mention of Hitchcock’s film of her first book, Strangers on a Train, had not). Simenon’s life was deliberately enshrouded in mystery. Behind the closed doors of one room in his Swiss Château, he would surround himself with fetishes. Entering an almost trancelike state, he would write compulsively, usually completing an entire book in five, nine or eleven days. His early thrillers featured psychological portrayals of loneliness, guilt and innocence that were at once acute and unsettling.
The Strangers in the House (Les Inconnus dans la Maison, 1940) depicts a Simenonian recluse, Hector Loursat, whose isolation is cruelly shattered. Loursat has shut himself away from the world in a large house, where he spends his time getting drunk. One evening he hears a gunshot and finds a corpse in his attic. He learns from the examining magistrate that his daughter Nicole and her friend Emile Manu are somehow involved in the death of this stranger, who appears to be a criminal. When Emile is arrested, Loursat decides to take on his defence and makes an eloquent speech defending the younger generation and pointing out the parents’ responsibility for their children.
The novel includes a psychological study of alcoholism and the nature of parental responsibility. Of the non-Maigret books, The Strangers in the House is perhaps a work to be recommended to those unwilling to tackle the prodigious body of work by Simenon and who are seeking a representative novel.
Henri Decoin’s 1942 film adaptation Les inconnus dans la maison raised (not for the first time) issues of anti-Semitism regarding the author. The actor Marcel Mouloudji played a character who was initially called ‘Ephraïm Luska’. Subsequent to the initial release in 1942, when the film was banned for its perceived anti-Semitic content after the war, re-release prints removed any indication that the character was Jewish, with his name re-voiced (except for one occasion in a trial scene where the actor Raimu still uses the original name). These issues aside, the film is a more than respectable entry in the Simenon filmic canon.
The Mahé Circle/‘Le Cercle des Mahé’ (1946) centres on a French country doctor, brought up in a province peopled by his inescapable family, the Mahé circle of the title. He goes on holiday to the south of France where a chance call to a sick woman triggers an obsession which is both sexual and non-sexual. Haunted by a glimpse of her daughter, he struggles to survive between his conventional life, dominated by his remarkable mother, and the dazzling otherness of the south. This is one of the author’s previously untranslated romans durs. John Banville recently put it among his top five Simenon novels: ‘enigmatic, brooding and wholly convincing’. Translator Siân Reynolds said to me: ‘My own view is that it can stand comparison with Camus’s L’Étranger: the illness and death of the mother, told in agonisingly sober prose, lies at the centre of the novel.’
In The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By/ ‘L’Homme qui regardait passer les trains’ (1938), Kees Popinga is a man who is very much involved in society in this, one of Simenon’s most accomplished books. He is a respectable family man, until the shipping firm for which he is managing clerk collapses just before Christmas. Popinga’s personality abruptly changes, and there emerges a calculating paranoiac, capable of random acts of violence, including even murder. On Christmas Eve, he feels himself drawn to Paris from his home town of Groningen in the Netherlands, and becomes the protagonist in a disturbing game of cat and mouse with the law. Rushing towards his own extinction, he is determined to be recognised, for the world to appreciate his criminal genius.
The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is virtually a travelogue of Paris, as the protagonist wanders aimlessly from district to district, sleeping with (but not having sex with) a variety of prostitutes. The novel contains an evocative (and very Parisian) image of an elderly woman selling flowers in the Rue de Douai, an image not impossible to conjure up in modern-day Paris; but the book also features a vividly rendered trip to a neighbourhood at the opposite end of town – Les Gobelins – which Simenon describes as one of the ‘saddest sections of Paris’, with wide avenues of depressing flats laid out like army barracks and cafés crowded with ‘mediocre people’ who are neither rich nor poor.
A film version directed by Harold French appeared in1953, compromised by the loss of the first filmmaker it was offered to, the auteur Joseph Losey; after his name was put on the anti-communist blacklist, he was obliged to leave Hollywood. Claude Rains, one of the best character actors that the British Isles ever produced, is perfectly cast as Simenon’s doomed protagonist, with strong support from the likes of Marius Goring, Herbert Lom, Anouk Aimée and Felix Aylmer.
Reviewed by Barry Forshaw
The Strangers in the House
The Mahé Circle
The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By
by Georges Simenon
Translated from the French by Howard Curtis (The Strangers in the House), Siân Reynolds (The Mahé Circle & The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By)
Published by Penguin (2021, 2014, 2016)
January 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Barry Forshaw’s books include Simenon: The Man, The Books, The Films; Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide; the Keating Award-winning Brit Noir and Euro Noir. Other work: Nordic Noir; Death in a Cold Climate, Sex and Film and the British Crime Writing encyclopedia (also a Keating Award winner). He edits Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk).
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