The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien

Why was Georges Simenon so great? Is it because he knew 140 pages were enough for a story?

Simenon zips along, creates suspense, and doesn’t begin to tell you what it’s all about until the last twenty pages. It isn’t a guessing game. There’s no twist. He’s simply telling you a story.

Penguin are bringing out a new Maigret translation every month this year. I read The Hanged Man of St Pholien last weekend. You could say “this story is about a man who can’t let go and starts to ruin the lives of his friends who could.” But you don’t need to. While there may be that idea in there at the end, it doesn’t need to be brought out. There’s no effort to be literary and “uncover a story of universal value.” All the effort is right where it should be: in the story itself, and in the pacing.

Simenon wrote the book in 1930, and there’s some pleasure in noticing that it might say something about a man that he drives his own car (as opposed to a chauffeur doing it for him); some pleasure in hearing that the Rue de Lappe, which is near the Bastille and now full of tourist bars, was lined with squalid housing and accordion-band dance halls, an area “frequented by drifters, immigrants, tarts and the chronically unemployed;” and some pleasure in knowing that back then, if you went into a large brasserie teeming with people you could expect “the tireless efforts of a Viennese orchestra” along with the clinking of beer mugs. Back then in crowded cafés people played cards and the three billiard tables were always in use.

This is also a world where a man smoking a meerschaum pipe is “a symbol of peace and joie de vivre.” A world it’s enjoyable to enter.

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