Saturday, 7 November 2020

The Man From London by Georges Simenon

The Man From London by Georges Simenon
First published in French as L'homme de Londres in France by Fayard in 1934. English language translation by Howard Curtis published by Penguin on the 5th November 2020.

One of my Classics Club Challenge reads.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On a foggy winter's evening in Dieppe, after the arrival of the daily ferry from England, a railway signalman habitually scrutinizes the port from his tiny, isolated cabin. When a scuffle on the quayside catches his eye, he is drawn to the scene of a brutal murder and his once quiet life changes forever. A mere observer at first, he soon finds himself fishing a briefcase from the water and in doing so he enters a feverish and secret chase. As the murderer and witness stalk and spy on each other, they gain an increasingly profound yet tacit understanding of each other, until the witness becomes an accomplice.

Written in 1933, soon after the successful launch of the Inspector Maigret novels, this haunting, atmospheric novel soon became a classic and the inspiration for several film and TV adaptations.

The Man From London is a wonderfully atmospheric novel set in the French port town of Dieppe. It is December, rainy and with frequent sea fogs, when the story takes place and I was in thrall to Simenon's masterly evocation of the town and its people throughout this novel. The crime that, ostensibly should be at its heart is at times almost incidental to the goings on at the Moulin Rouge nightclub, the Cafe Suisse, or the daily fish market. Simenon paints such a foreboding picture that I was frequently reminded of Pascal Garnier's crime noir novels, also set in deceptively everyday French towns.

Simenon chose to tell The Man From London's story primarily from the point of view of a railway signalman, Maloin, working nights in his gantry cabin, who observes a fracas that sets the whole case in motion. Generally in crime fiction this character would be peripheral to the main narrative, with our concentration instead directed towards the visiting Inspector tasked with solving the crime. I loved following this story from Maloin's perspective instead. It makes for a pretty unique setup and the scene where the two men, the witness Maloin and the murderer from London, become aware of each other's presence and knowledge is breathtakingly tense even though, by modern day crime fiction standards, absolutely nothing happens!

I was pleasantly surprised at Simenon writing several plausible and rounded female characters. Women here don't just scream or die! Maloin himself is by far the most complex person though and even on finishing the book I am still not sure I understood everything about him. His persona is gruff and guarded, yet tenderly kind at other times and I did strongly get the impression of a man in over his head, perhaps not quite believing himself how far he had allowed himself to go. The Man From London is a thoughtful novel that confidently steps away from the norm in this genre. I felt it had more in common with other standalone Simenon novels such as The Stain On The Snow rather than his Maigret series so might confound readers who come to it expecting a detective story. I was impressed!

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Georges Simenon / Crime fiction / Books from Belgium

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