Friday, January 16, 2015

European RC #1

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2015.

The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien - Georges Simenon, tr. Linda Coverdale in 2014

Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien (1931) has been translated as The Crime of Inspector Maigret and Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets. This 2014 translation is part of a raft of Maigret novels re-issued by Penguin.

On a routine mission in Brussels, Inspector Maigret’s suspicions are aroused in a cafĂ© by a shabbily dressed individual counting a bundle of cash. The dubious man buys a cheap suitcase, and so does Maigret. The man takes a train to Bremen in northwestern Germany, and so does Maigret. Seizing an opportunity, Maigret switches the two suitcases. In Bremen, the man takes a hotel room, and so Maigret gets the room next door. When man discovers the substitution of suitcases, he commits suicide with a revolver. Maigret opens the switched suitcase, and finds that it contains what testing reveals to be a suitcoat that is not only old but blood-stained too. Deeply shocked by the fatal consequences of his acts, Maigret feels determined to get to the bottom of this strange chain of events, to understand what drove a man to take his own life.

The second Maigret novel proves no exception to other Depression-era mysteries such as Peter the Lett, A Man's Head, and the genuine downer The Yellow Dog. All have a sad atmosphere, like November and December in northern Europe. Gray skies, fog, sloppy rain, cruel gusts are rendered well, in short brushstrokes. So are the mists and shadows around very old buildings such as churches and guild halls. Ditto for the warm, stuffy, smoky interiors of bars, offices, hotels, newsrooms, morgues, police stations with their small silences, or soft obscure sounds.

And what a story! Dark and macabre. Nothing to celebrate, just the tragedy of romantic and adventurous youth going terribly off the rails in the blink on an eye. Simenon manages to bring his characters so closely to us that we end up realizing that we could all act like that, pressed by those circumstances and fueled by alcohol, for college students who toy with the hazardous assumption that in a world where life is cheap there’s no difference between crime and virtue.

But we fans will bet anything that our series hero Maigret does not assume life is cheap. Moving among Bremen, Rheims, Brussels and Paris, Maigret is his usual unwavering, taciturn self:  "a pachyderm plodding inexorably towards its goal." So between the atmosphere, international settings, and unusual story, I highly recommend this early Maigret story newly translated by Linda Coverdale.

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