“Mr Hire’s Engagement” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)

When the mob is baying for blood

In its slim 152 pages, this early Simenon from 1933 manages to cover mob violence sparked by the insidious influence of unfounded rumours, social prejudice against someone who doesn’t conform to the norm, exhibitionism and voyeurism, and a good dash of sexual titillation. All in all, fairly standard fare from the prolific, fanciful and priapic Belgian author.
27. December 2020 10:20

Two weeks before the novel opens, the corpse of a woman, mutilated beyond recognition but probably a prostitute, has been found on wasteland less than 200 metres from the seedy apartment building where Mr Hire lives on the fourth floor in Villejuif, one of the less salubrious regions of Paris. The police have been hanging around getting nowhere in finding a suspect.

But from the moment the malignant concierge spots a blood-soaked towel in Hire’s room, she, the frustrated police and the on-edge neighbourhood start to feed each other’s suspicions about him. After all, Hire is a solitary oddball, unlikeable because he doesn’t chat and he’s unattractive with a flabby body and an orb-like face that has very red lips and a thin moustache he curls with an iron.

Hire is a mystery. He is of Jewish descent, which the police know but his neighbours apparently don’t, and no one in the community knows what his job is. He leaves his apartment in the morning and comes back in the evening, carrying his briefcase. Unbeknown to the locals he has a business that’s only just this side of fraudulent.

It involves advertising in Le Matin newspaper offering people easy work without quitting their job, then when people send him money he posts them a watercolour set and five or six postcards to colour in. The police become aware of this when he falls under suspicion for the murder and they begin following him everywhere. But it’s a legal swindle for which he can’t be prosecuted because he does at least send out something in return for the money received.

The police are also aware he has a background publishing “books of erotica” and “works of flagellation”, and was in prison for six months on charges of indecency. Again, his neighbours don’t appear to know this but his other peculiarities are enough to make him disliked.

Simenon tells us that Hire occasionally relaxes by going to a bordello (the Belgian was a habitué himself) where his regular, Gisele, bathes him. But at the time when we visit with him he loses his nerve when she “lay down on the settee, flat on her back, her knees high in the air”. Simenon loved sex, and we learn that Gisele’s breasts leaped as she washed Hire, further she has “aggressively pink pointed nipples darting ahead”.

The police tell Hire that the ladies at the brothel find him strange and disconcerting. In his rare conventional moments he is an accomplished ten-pin bowler, where the regular players think the mysterious fellow might be a policeman, simply because he doesn’t bother to correct them. And it is said his fellow tenants in the apartment building call back their little girls and even their boys if they are playing too closely to him.

Unfortunately, Hire has cut his face shaving, hence the bloody towel, but blood and traces of skin were found beneath the dead woman’s nails and so the police are particularly on the lookout for men with scratched faces. The fact that nobody has noticed he didn’t have a bandaged face in the days after the murder seems to be a plot hole of no concern to the speedy writer Simenon (and a shaving cut produces a “blood-soaked” towel?).

In fact, not only did Hire not commit the crime but he knows who did: his window looks across the courtyard into the apartment of Alice, a young woman who works at the local dairy. Her bedroom window is only three metres away, and Hire knows that the killer was her boyfriend Émile, whom he saw arrive in Alice’s room with the dead woman’s purse one night, slipping it under the mattress.

Here, the author is busy with what to him must be a peeping tom’s dream – spying on a woman undressing. Alice has silky red hair that cascades to her shoulders and Hire watches from his window as she pulls off her black wool dress and sits on the bed to take off her stockings. In her underwear she spends a long time rubbing her nipples, which are shrivelled from the cold. This sort of detail, so beloved of Simenon, was probably much more daring in 1933.

Alice realises he is watching and one day she beckons him over. Hire is on his way but encounters a detective in the concierge’s and so skips back to his room. Alice is angry at his non-arrival, without knowing why, and she “angrily tore off the bodice of her dress, revealing a white blouse which could barely contain her breasts”, not to mention a Simenon speciality, “the red hairs of her armpits” (mentioned again later).

Simenon picks up pace and when Hire and Alice start to meet she fakes love for him and pretends she will go away with him, while in fact treacherously incriminating him to save her real boyfriend, the skinny unhealthy Émile. It all comes to a head (spoiler alert) in a horrific way as the stirred-up locals turn on the persecuted Hire, baying for his blood in a dramatic and upsetting ending.

Somehow, the first time we read this book a couple of years ago it failed to convince. That copy was translated from the original French “Les Fiançailles de M. Hire”, published in 1933, into English by Daphne Woodward in 1956. The novel was translated a second time by Anna Moschovakis in 2007, with this version being revised by Penguin Books in 2014.

Here at The Budapest Times we have a copy of each, and the choice of words and phrases by the two women is often quite different. Somehow the 2014 version, which we just read, comes across much better. It is a solid psychological portrait and thriller, with expert storyteller Simenon cranking up the tension in a Kafka-like plot.

Incidentally, the book was filmed as “Panique” in 1946 and as “Monsieur Hire” In 1989. In terms of serving the novel, the former is far, far better and hopefully Simenon didn’t see the latter mess, minus the mob for starters, before he died on September 4, 1989

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