I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1963 and be from the mystery category.
I read this for L-3: Book with an Amateur Detective
Les rescapés du «Télémaque» aka The Survivors – Georges Simenon, 1938; tr. Stuart Gilbert, 1949
Twin brothers Pierre and Charles Canut are opposites. Pierre, a fishing boat captain, is trusted by his fellow ocean fishermen for his quiet strength and dependability. Charles, however, is a bit of a sop, introspective, diffident, enthralled at the age of 33 to a dim 18-year-old tavern-waitress. They were posthumous children, their father having been killed in a macabre incident at sea on the trawler Telemachus in 1908. It was such a weird happening that it drove their mother half-mad and cast a shadow over their childhood.
And their adulthood apparently. A murder occurs. Everyone in the fishing town of Fecamp knows the victim, Émile Février (February?), was a shipmate of their father during the grisly voyage. In fact, it’s a common street scene when Pierre and Charles’ eccentric mother threatens the soon-to-be victim of heaven’s vengeance being visited about his head. Holding Pierre in high esteem, nobody thinks he cut the throat of the victim nor do they dream the cerebral and soft Charles would do be capable of doing it. Pierre, a prototypical inarticulate male, can’t defend himself because he is so angry and disgusted at the law’s assumption that revenge was his motive and the circumstantial evidence is sufficient to get a conviction. He tells the cops, “Don’t talk about things you don’t understand.” Simenon, as usual, is incredibly persuasive when his characters come from closed societies – either small places or occupations like commercial fishing - with their own codes of deportment, conduct and silence.
With Pierre in custody for the murder, Charles becomes uncharacteristically determined to become an amateur investigator, identify the real killer or killers, and heroically save his brother from a criminal justice system that mindlessly and remorselessly puts innocent people through a buzz-saw. The reader has little hope for Charles, since he is a railway clerk with few skills to transfer to detecting. He ends up following his persons of interest around in both Fecamp and Harve. Simenon pulls rabbits out of hats, to interesting effect.
Simenon’s non-Maigret stories are known as roman durs – hard novels, mainly psychological thrillers that examine characters in a milieu. Although they often hinge on or climax in death, they are not often murder mysteries like this one. But the mystery plot is merely a peg on which to hang an examination of a character. Charles pushes himself to be more aggressive in ferreting out facts. He finds confidence that he can be more forceful, but accepts his introspective self as immutable.