Having read 10 of Penguin’s republished Maigrets, I confess I’ve had enough. I enjoyed Rowan Atkinson’s recent portrayal of the man in Maigret Sets A Trap, but Maigret just isn’t dynamic enough for me. He sits around and thinks too much, and the plots are sometimes obvious. So for the 1938 Club, I chose to read a Roman Durs (a hard novel – although I think of them as dark novels). They certainly have more meat, typically involving a criminal, alienated from his surroundings, with no hope of redemption.
That sounds like Europe in 1938 to me, although I don’t think that Simenon was consciously drawing a prophetic allegory of the political situation, even if many respectable citizens were about to be pushed over the edge into insanity ….
Kees Popinga is such a man. Married for 16 years, with two children, he works for a local shipping company. He has built his own house and is proud of it. The novel opens with a terrible discovery. The company is about to go bust, and, as Popinga has invested all his savings in it, he is a ruined man. His boss seems to relish telling him the hard truth, just before faking his death and making a getaway to start over.
This betrayal of trust tips the sensible Kees over the edge. He casts off the shackles of responsibility and respectability. With the money his boss has given in (in a fit of guilt), he decides to track down his boss’s mistress (a high-class prostitute) and make up for opportunities missed years before. She laughs at him, which leads to an accidentally fatal outcome. Popinga is no longer simply on a spree. He is now evading justice.
He escapes to Paris, but how can a Dutch murderer evade arrest? Fortunately he has plenty of money, can speak English, French and German fluently, and so can disguise himself. For a time. Inexorably, however, the downward spiral gathers momentum – not helped by his fixation with the woman he meets on his first night in Paris. Yet he remains unaware of being dragged ever lower due to his resilience and absolute confidence in his abilty to outwit the French police,
who seem not to be doing very much. Which makes Popinga mad. They’re not taking him seriously. Like Maigret, they are just sitting it out waiting for him to give himself away. Well, he’ll show them!
This psychological portrait of a criminal on the run and his descent into madness is the core of the novel. Bang on the money too. Next time an overconfident criminal starts sending letters to the press, pick up Simenon’s novel. It will inform you of the mind games behind the press releases and psychological profiling. Police methods haven’t changed that much in the almost 80 years since Simeon published this.