#RivetingReviews: Barry Forshaw reviews THE MAN WHO WATCHED THE TRAINS GO BY by Georges Simenon

Penguin’s Georges Simenon reissue programme put crime aficionados in their debt with such titles as The Man who Watched Trains Go By. P.D. James called Simenon a writer who, more than any other crime novelist, combined a high literary reputation with popular appeal, and the eclipse his reputation briefly underwent is now, thankfully, in the past. 

Simenon, made famous by his Inspector Maigret books, was the world’s most successful author in the 1960s, and has since inspired many writers of psychological crime – such as Patricia Highsmith with Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley. The life of the writer is itself enshrouded in mystery, behind the closed doors of one room in his Swiss Château, Simenon 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. This ravenous excitement appears to have been mirrored in Simenon’s renowned sexual appetite, as he claimed to have taken hundreds of women to bed, sometimes as many as three in one day.

His early thrillers show the sophistication and themes that made Simenon famous. His characters are captivatingly accurate portraits of the ordinary man and how he can be driven to extraordinary behaviour. His psychological portrayals of loneliness, guilt and innocence are at once acute and unsettling. The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By shows a man who is very much involved in society, a respectable family man, until the shipping firm, for which he is managing clerk, collapses just before Christmas. A barrier in Popinga’s mind falls and there emerges a calculating paranoiac, capable of random acts of violence, capable even of murder. As he feels himself drawn to Paris on Christmas Eve, he enters into 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.

Simenon was born on 12th February 1903, in Liège, Belgium. Aged sixteen he began to work as a reporter for a local newspaper and at nineteen he moved to Paris to embark upon a career as a novelist. He wrote more than four hundred books, beginning with pulp fiction and novellas, written under various pseudonyms, later publishing the Maigret books and others in his own name. Simenon died in 1989, in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he had lived for the latter part of his life.

Reviewed by Barry Forshaw


Written by Georges Simenon 

Translated from the French by Sian Reynolds

Published by Penguin (2016)

Buy this title through the European Literature Network’s bookshop.org page.

Barry Forshaw’s books include Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide, the Keating Award-winning Brit Noir and Nordic Noir. Other work: 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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Category: ReviewsFebruary 2021


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