Book review: Lock No. 1

Georges Simenon (translated by David Coward)
Penguin Classics, €10.50; ebook, €6.49

ONE night, while staggering back to his barge home, Gassin, an old drunkard, falls into the Marne canal on the outskirts of Paris.

While in the water, he finds another body, that of his long-time friend, Emile Ducrau, who has been stabbed in the back. Fortunately, the wounds are superficial, and Ducrau, a haulage magnate who owns practically everything in the area on both land and water, is soon revived.

Maigret, about to take early retirement for the tranquillity of a country life, picks up the case and quickly discovers a kinship with Ducrau, a brutish sort who’d built an empire from nothing and who can’t help but feel contempt for those around him, particularly his family — the constantly solemn wife, the demanding daughter and her useless military husband, the sickly son — all of whom rely on him for support.

He lives in a large house, keeps his mistress on an upstairs floor, openly seduces the maid, and is truly comfortable only among the bargees and prostitutes.

Ducrau and Gassin had started out together, and remain friends. But Ducrau has a secret. Years earlier, he’d slept with his friend’s wife, and is likely the father of their only child, Aline, a gentle, mentally underdeveloped daughter.

Aline, and Ducrau’s son, Jean, have been close, and now the girl can be seen nursing a baby. The mystery appears to solve itself when Jean commits suicide, leaving a note confessing to the attack on his father, but when a second man is found, hanging (an assistant lock-keeper named Bébert), Maigret has to fit together all the pieces of this sordid and tragic puzzle.

Born in Belgium in 1903, it was during his 20s, living in France, that Georges Simenon emerged as a major force in European letters. A larger-than-life personality, possessed of ferocious appetites, he was, as a writer, something of an anomaly.

With 200 novels to his name, as well as several hundred short stories and novellas, and sales that have long since passed the half-billion mark, his prodigious output and popularity diminished his literary standing.

Yet he was nominated on numerous occasions for the Nobel Prize, and counted the likes of Gide, Colette, TS Eliot, Hemingway, William Faulkner and Henry Miller among his ardent admirers.

His work — as in the manner of Graham Greene’s ‘novels’ and ‘entertainments’ — can be divided into two camps: the so-called ‘romans durs’ or ‘hard novels’; and the Maigret series. The former (novels like Dirty Snow, The Train, Act of Passion and The Little Man from Archangel, to name just a few) are simply astonishing; tense, nihilistic, psychologically acute forays into the darkest corners of the soul.

But for all their greatness, Simenon’s immortality rests with the 75 novels and 28 short stories that comprise the Inspector Maigret universe.

Furthermore, each novel reads as a stand-alone piece, and chronology has no particular bearing on which book the reader chooses as an entry point.

Eighteen months ago, Penguin began reissuing the books, newly translated, in a collection of handsome paperbacks that will, hopefully, break this essential work to new generations.

Lock No 1 is the 18th volume of the series, and showcases Simenon’s great gifts: clear, yet subtle storytelling, tightly focused plot, prose that is lean and possessed of a rare, tensile quality, and thoroughly three-dimensional characters. But what elevates these books above the usual genre fare is the non-judgemental and existential acceptance of the world’s horrors.

Simenon is a great, cold-eyed observer of the evils that men (and sometimes women) do, and human enough to accept the sadness that results.


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