The Man from London by Georges Simenon

Lead us not into temptation…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Man from LondonMaloin is a railway signalman who works the night-shift in the signal box at Dieppe, overlooking the harbour. One night, he’s watching the various arrivals and departures of cross-channel ferries as usual when he spots one man throwing a suitcase over the fence to another man, thus avoiding customs. Maloin shrugs – smuggling is commonplace and he’d probably do it himself. But when he later sees the two men fighting over the suitcase and then one of them killing the other, during which the suitcase falls in the dock, he doesn’t do what he knows he should – inform the authorities. Instead, he uses his knowledge of the tides to retrieve the suitcase, which he finds to be full of English banknotes…

This was my introduction to Simenon’s non-Maigret books, and turned out to be a very good one to begin with. It’s a study of a weak man whose greed leads him into an act of which he would not have thought himself capable, and the consequences on his character of the guilt and fear that follow.

Simenon’s settings are always one of his main strengths, and here he gives a great picture of the working life of Dieppe – the shopkeepers, the people who make their living from the fish and shellfish in the sea and on the shore, the hotels and bars, the rather downbeat, humdrum sex trade, and the transient travellers, mostly passing through on their way to somewhere more exciting. Too big to be a place where everyone knows everyone else, it still has a small town feel – the inhabitants carefully graded according to their station in life.

Maloin is an unpleasant character even before he gets himself involved in crime – bullying to his wife and children, using the services of the local prostitute whenever he feels the need to bolster his ego and prove himself a man, jealous of anyone to whom he feels socially inferior. His night work suits his rather misanthropic personality, allowing him to spend his working hours alone and giving him the days free to pursue his hobbies. His family are used to being quiet around the house so as not to disturb his daytime sleep, and mostly they propitiate him so as to avoid his outbursts of unreasonable anger.

But once he commits the act of retrieving the suitcase he sees visions of wealth and at first feels no guilt. However, seeing the murderer searching for the suitcase, he feels the first chill of fear, and as the police become involved in the hunt, first for the money, and then for the murderer, he finds himself entirely consumed by it to the point where he can’t sleep or concentrate on anything else. And then the guilt begins. Without going further into the story to avoid spoilers, it’s a very credible picture of how someone without any particular intelligence and a loose moral compass might behave when temptation comes his way. Maloin’s plans for how to convert the money to francs, how to explain its sudden acquisition, never get past the woolly stage, and meantime he finds himself getting sucked into a quagmire of deceit and a criminal investigation that is growing more serious by the day. What seemed at first like a minor transgression is gradually destroying his state of mind.

georges-simenon
Georges Simenon

Novella length, this doesn’t waste any time on unnecessary padding – the length of the book is dictated by how long it takes to tell the story, a skill Simenon had in spades and which many a modern crime writer would do well to emulate. The suspense element is excellent – while Maloin behaves consistently with the character Simenon has created for him, it’s nevertheless not at all clear where his fear and guilt will ultimately lead him. And I found the ending entirely satisfactory, showing once again that sudden twists are not necessary to produce true suspense – it’s the fundamental unpredictability of human behaviour that does that.

This will certainly encourage me to seek out more of Simenon’s non-Maigret work. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it more or thought it was better, exactly, but it has a somewhat different, darker feel and that aspect of being a story complete in itself that I always appreciate in stand-alones, without losing the features I always enjoy most in Maigret – the settings and the characters of his villains.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

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32 thoughts on “The Man from London by Georges Simenon

  1. I do like that creeping sense of foreboding that comes through when a man like this does ‘just one thing’ that ends up having all sorts of consequences. And Maigret does that atmosphere really well, I think. I agree with you, too, that Simenon was very good at depicting setting. I haven’t read all his Maigrets, but the ones I do know always make me feel I’m there. And a person who can tell a really good story in novella length gets extra Margot points. Glad you enjoyed this, FictionFan!

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    • I liked that the perpetrator in this one was shown as being a rather unpleasant man already – it made his actions much more believable. And everything followed on very naturally from that first step, so it stayed well within my too-sensitive credibility zone! And I enjoyed the trip to Dieppe – my previous Simenons have all been set in Paris or London.

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  2. I love your comment: ‘the length of the book is dictated by how long it takes to tell the story, a skill Simenon had in spades and which many a modern crime writer would do well to emulate’. Yes, this is something I really appreciate about Simenon, whether with the Maigret books or his other novels.

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    • The more I read of shorter vintage crime, the more I feel that the short length works better for the genre usually, although there are always exceptions to prove the rule. But I often find myself feeling far more satisfied by a tightly plotted book of a couple hundred pages than a 500-page over-padded monster! I suspect Simenon never counted his words…

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  3. I didn’t even know, he had written other stuff than Maigret, but it sounds worth looking into. I for one appreciate stories without unnecessary padding. After two chunksters this year (one was disappointing, the other terrible) I am ready for some great to-the-point novellas (like Sarah Moss Summerwater which was brilliant).

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    • As usual, neither did I till I learned about his other stuff from fellow bloggers. A lot of people actually think his non-Maigret books are better. Since this is the only non-Maigret I’ve read I’m not ready to make that decision, but I certainly felt this was very well done. Oh, good to hear you loved Summerwater – I should be getting to it in the next few weeks. I’m definitely an enthusiast for shorter, tighter books – long books are fine so long as the story justifies the length, but so often they’re just full of padding.

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    • Ha! I must admit one of the things I love most about Simenon is his brevity! The Maigret books are always novella-length too, at least the ones I’ve read so far, and it means you can pretty much read them in one or two sessions. Perfect weekend reading!

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  4. I was waiting for some encouragement to commit to this book, and you’ve given it! It’s accessible length is appealing too. I think it’s a skill to present an unpleasant protagonist in a way which doesn’t leave the reader overwhelmed with that unpleasantness but still able to appreciate all the well written aspects of the story.

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    • Sometimes with unpleasant characters I find the author takes it all too far, but here I felt the character stayed within credible limits of behaviour. Simenon really is excellent at creating these kinds of characters – even in the Maigret books I often find the villains more interesting than Maigret himself.

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    • I’ve only read a few of the Maigrets but have thoroughly enjoyed them and usually have one or two on my TBR – because they’re so short they’re easy to fit in. It’s his settings and his villains I like most – I wouldn’t call him noir exactly, but he’s certainly quite dark grey sometimes…

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  5. I’ve never read Simenon before but I keep meaning to. Your review reminds me of the nonseries work of Ruth Rendell, that same kind of intense psychological character study as someone makes a bad choice and has to deal with the consequences.

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    • I’ve still never read any of Rendell’s non-series books, and only a couple of her series ones. But I do like the way Simenon gets inside the head of his villains – they usually seem very credible even when they’re doing something crazy…

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    • Simenon is great at these short, sharp books where he takes you inside the villain’s head. It usually the villains I remember from the Maigret books too, rather than the plots…

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  6. This one sounds good! And it has so much going for it, it seems. the length (yay!), the lack of twists (why do authors these days seem to rely on them so much, they aren’t necessary!), and of course, the darkness. It all seems to have come together nicely.

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    • Yes, loads of vintage crimes rave about Simenon and I can see why – he’s great at these short, dark books. And I’m so tired of twists – it’s lovely to have someone who stays within character throughout…

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  7. I love Simenon’s books, and I keep wanting to read more but I also keep putting it off! Ugh. Why do I do that?!! The pull toward them is all that you say here, about the brevity, the concise plotting, and how he knows just the right rhythm/tension combination. The only non-Maigret book I’ve read is The Train. There’s not a crime, rather a love affair. I’ve always remembered it because of the reason the narrator tells the story, which I believe he reveals in the ending, nothing shocking but so true in how we become invisible in old age. Anyway, that’s a long way of saying I’m intrigued to read The Man From London! (And inspired to treat myself to more Maigret.)

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    • I’ve read a few of the Maigrets over the last few years but he was so prolific I feel as if I’ve hardly scratched the surface yet! This is my first non-Maigret though, and I was very impressed. I love that shorter novella length – I think it works better for a lot of crime stories than a big padded novel. I also enjoy the experience of being able to read the whole thing in one or two sittings. I shall add The Train to the wishlist!

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