“The Venice Train” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)

The ‘root of all evil’ fouls up another mind

People, places, plot – get the right balance between the three elements and your budding book is coming along. For Simenon it was the places that gave the atmosphere, usually in Paris or the French countryside, and the plot generally took care of itself as he wrote on. It was the people who mattered most, as he took them out of their safety zones and wormed his way into their disturbed minds.
19. June 2022 10:26

Simenon is recognised as a man who didn’t waste words, employing an unchallenging vocabulary and turning in his books quickly and shortish at around the 170-page mark. While other writers might wax lyrical over spectacular Venice, which is where this novel gets under way, for Simenon it was simply “… the boat that had ferried them from the Lido… The sudden view of Venice in the already warm early morning, the towers, the domes, the palaces, Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Grand Canal, the gondolas and, because it was Sunday, bells ringing in all the churches, in all the belfries”.

And “He’d had his fill of sunshine, the hordes of bathers on the beach, the noise of the vaporettos and water-taxis, of Saint Mark’s Square and its pigeons, of the shops where everything seemed so cheap and where you bought useless knick-knacks purely because you were abroad”. That’s it for Venice, for Simenon.

More importantly, the city simply serves to introduce the protagonist, Justin Calmar, 38,  an overseas sales manager for a plastics firm in Paris, who must return to work in the French capital without his wife Dominique, 32,  daughter Josée, 12, and young son Louis. They were all supposed to leave together after their two-week holiday but there was only one seat on the train, so the family would stay on for a few more days.

The story begins, then, and Calmar is aboard “Le Train de Venise”, as the book was called when it was first published in French in 1965, towards the end of Simenon’s decades-long and prolific writing career. He wrote it at his home in Épalinges, a suburb of Lausanne, Switzerland.

This 2022 edition is a new English translation and follows on from Penguin’s new translations of the 75 “Maigret” novels. Now we are having a new translation of one of his 117 (or so) romans durs (the “hard novels”) every two or three months. There’ve been just over a dozen so far and long may they continue. There’ll be another in September, “The Hatter’s Ghosts”.

Calmar finds himself in a reserved compartment in an otherwise crowded train with only a middle-aged man who already seems to have picked up quite a few details about him, listening in while Calmar farewelled his family at the station. The stranger had perhaps boarded in Belgrade or Trieste and may be Slav, and he probes deeper with a number of seemingly innocuous questions. Calmar is surprised but he is hesitant to ask personal questions too.

Now the crux. The man says he has to continue on to Geneva where a flight is waiting for him, and he won’t have time at Lausanne, where the train only stops for a few minutes, to do something. So could Calmar, who would have two hours to wait for a change of train, do him a favour by going to Left Luggage, collecting a briefcase from locker 155 and taking it by taxi to a woman, Arlette Staub, at 24 Rue du Bugnon, Lausanne? Calmar thinks it sounds innocent enough and so he agrees. The man gives him a key to the locker and some cash to cover costs.

The man then mysteriously disappears from the train while it is in the darkness of the Simplon Tunnel. And when Calmar reaches Lausanne, collects the case from the locker and goes to the address, no one answers the bell. He finds the door is unlocked, enters and sees Staub dead on the carpet, strangled by a blue silk scarf. His only thought is to get away immediately and he doesn’t call the police.

He takes a risk at French Customs, saying the briefcase contains business documents, and luckily isn’t asked to open it, which would require him to say he had lost the key.

Back in Paris Calmar forces open the briefcase and finds stacks of money, the equivalent of 1.5 million francs, enough to buy 10 aprtments in a new building or 10 houses in the country. He buys the Swiss newspaper La Gazette de Lausanne over the next days at international news-stands and eventually reads that the mangled body of a man has been found in the Simplon Tunnel.

Who was he – a spy, an international trafficker? What’s going on? Could the person who did away with Staub, a manicurist whose body is also eventually discovered, track down Calmar and do away with him too? What should he do with the money? If he keeps it, and of course he decides to, where can he hide it?

Actually, it’s not a totally original scenario but a writer can take a theme and play around with the details. In the 1949 United Artists film “Too Late For Tears”, for instance, Lizabeth Scott is driving in her open-top car when a suitcase is tossed from a car going in the opposite direction and lands in with her. It contains $US60,000 and sets her off on a murderous attempt to hold on to the money, but ending up in the dastardly grasp of evil Dan Duryea. The film was based on a 1947 serial by Roy Huggins in The Saturday Evening Post.

Won’t a similar fate await Calmar? He now finds himself suddenly burdened with a lot of money but just as much guilt; even worse, and more life-transforming for him, the sudden windfall opens his eyes, for the first time, to how restrained and ordered and controlled his life is – and how little freedom he has, at home and at work.

Here he is, suddenly rich but unable to flaunt his wealth (too many questions) or hide the money easily (no hiding places in his apartment or office). Even the slightest deviations from his normal routine are noticed, magnified and discussed by everyone, or at least so it appears to Calmar, growing more paranoid as the weeks pass.

The money can help him, but to do what? He will keep it but not out of greed, “because, in actual fact, he hadn’t the faintest idea what he would do with it”. The prospect of how to use it, both in terms of explaining the extra cash to others and of what to use it for, exposes to Calmar many truths about his life, none of them easy to bear.

“There were some weeks that were painful, nerve-wracking. At the office or at home, in the middle of a meal, he would suddenly find his forehead bathed in sweat, a tightness in his chest, and, at those times, feeling everyone’s eyes on him was unbearable.”

The meeting on the train was not a chance for Calmar to finally change things but only one more nail in his coffin of mediocrity. We are in familiar Simenon territory, as he explores the conflicts, the guilt and lies, that twist Calmar’s mind. Calmar is getting near the end of his tether. Should he go to the police and unburden himself? How will it all end? Probably messily.

Mr Simenon, you have got us hooked. Onward we read.

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