“The Man from London” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)
Can a decent man ignore his nagging conscience?
It begins like this. Louis Maloin has been a signalman for the railroad in Dieppe, France, for nearly 30 years. His elevated glass-walled cabin right in the middle of town by the boat-train terminus gives him the best vantage point over the whole harbour, where the cross-Channel ferries arrive from Newhaven in England twice a day and the railway lines carry the Dieppe-Paris express.
He is on the night shift and it is most unpleasant weather, a cold and damp November with fine rain making everything dripping wet. The fog is white and cold as ice, almost as if it were solid. Foghorns are honking and people breathe out clouds of steam. One night, from his vantage point, Maloin sees a man throw a suitcase from the newly arrived ferry to an accomplice on the quay, thus avoiding the customs check.
Maloin is intrigued, wondering what kind of contraband is in the suitcase. He isn’t going to tell anyone though. If he went to England he too would smuggle through some tobacco or alcohol; it’s the done thing.
The two shady types meet and go for a drink but later that night Maloin witnesses them fighting over the suitcase on the dark quayside. The man holding on to the case is punched into the water, where he sinks, drowned. The other man flees when he thinks he has been seen.
Instead of going to the police, Maloin creeps out of his signal box and dives in and recovers the suitcase. Back in the safety of his watchtower, he opens it and discovers a king’s ransom in British money. There is almost £6000 in five- and 10-pound notes, which is 540,000 francs.
He decides to keep the money and hide it in his cupboard in the tower. But now that he has stepped off his normal path his troubles begin.
He is suddenly rich and his family’s money problems will be over, he tells himself in an unconvincing attempt to dispel the unease weighing him down. What if the money is counterfeit? Stolen or forged? It could be dangerous to take a note to the bank. If the suitcase man stays in Dieppe, will he show up on every street corner?
The man does stay. It turns out he is English, and he realises that Maloin may have seen the fight from the lofty signal box overlooking the quay. He and Maloin see each other in town and become more aware of each other. Over a couple of days they do pass in the street but they don’t speak. Maloin works himself up into a state where he almost wishes they would.
The Englishman looks frightened himself and not a thug. On the contrary he looks rather like a poor unhealthy wretch, someone who leads a solitary life.
Maloin becomes scared of the dark, when he might run into the Englishman. Unsettled, Maloin considers giving him back the suitcase, hoping the man would give him part of the money for his pains. Or perhaps Maloin will give 500 francs to the chapel to avoid a confrontation.
The hesitation of the two men proves fatal. It leaves enough time for Inspector Mollison from Scotland Yard to arrive in Dieppe. He starts digging around. The money was stolen in England, Simenon reveals, and Mollison enlists the help of a local chief inspector and his gendarmes.
The owner of the money and his daughter also show up from England, in pursuit of the stolen nest egg. So does the wife of the Englishman who stole the money and who has gone to ground in Dieppe.
Maloin feels trapped. He doesn’t know what to do. It is a suitcase of meaningless cash. He can’t spend it without changing it, and this is impossible without drawing attention to himself. The stolen cash is a tantalus of longing, a mountain of unspendable loot. In a spasm of resentment and frustration at his pseudo-riches, he digs into his savings to buy himself an expensive meerschaum pipe and he takes his daughter Henrietta out of the butcher’s where she is a drudge, and he buys her new clothes.
Henrietta is uncomprehending and so is his wife, who is horrified at the loss of her daughter’s job and the way her husband has been spending the family savings. Maloin is in a foul mood and argues with his wife. He simply cannot explain what he has done.
Isn’t it odd, he reflects, how you can live 22 years with a woman, have children together, share the family income and, when it comes down to it, still be strangers? It was her fault, she understood nothing and always complained. And so, we head to the denouement.
“L’Homme de Londres” was published in 1934 and this is a brand-new 2020 translation. Some earlier tranlations of Simenon’s many books have been rather fanciful at times, and Penguin is tidying up a series of them. Recent reissues have included “Three Bedrooms in Manhattan”, “The Hand”, “The Man Who Watched the Trains Go by””, “The Mahé Circle”, “Mr Hire’s Engagement”, “The Blue Room”, “The Snow is Dirty”, “The Pitards” and a biography, “ When I Was Old”.
Between 2013 and 2020 the whole series of 75 “Maigret” books was retranslated and reissued by Penguin. Expect a collection of some of the 28 “Maigret” short stories in 2021 and further “romans dur”, namely Simenon’s “hard novels”, the psychological ones. These are built around crimes of passion and violence.
Get into Simenon, the Belgian author born in Liege in 1903 who died in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1989 after writing some 400-plus books. Their sparse style is fluid and easy to read, if sometimes rushed and a little careless. Simenon didn’t like to waste words and he didn’t like to waste time when writing. The books have many victims, few heroes.
“L’Homme de Londres” is a very atmospheric novel and has been filmed three times, including a dark, demanding effort by Hungary’s Ágnes Hranitzky and Béla Tarr in 2007. Simenon excels in his description of Dieppe in winter, with its foggy shores and the tides influencing people’s lives. Winter life in the little town sees nearly all the hotels closed for the season. The only strangers are the occasional business men who come through.
Here we have one of his typically cleverly crafted novellas, about a man who acts out of character and ultimately screws up his life.