Main view of the west end of the Church of Saint-Pholien in the district of Outremeuse, Liège. This is the present (and fourth so named) church consacrated on the 18th of May 1914. (Photo: Peter Foord 2003).|
Simenon wrote this novel in December 1930 nearly nine years after the occurrence that gives it its French title. At the time of writing it he was staying in temporary rented accommodation in the villa "Ker-Jean", 11-15 Avenue des Sables-Blancs at Beuzec-Conq (Finistère) along the coast from Concarneau in Brittany, with his wife, Tigy, their maid and cook Boule and Olaf the family dog.
As in many of the early novels published by Fayard, Maigret finds himself outside his jurisdiction of Paris, as it seems obvious that Simenon was making the most of using his experiences from his travels at that time.
In the first part of the novel, by chance and his own curiosity, Maigret meets up with several people in their early thirties, individually or as a group, in a variety of locations, Brussels, Bremen, Rheims and Paris. Early on he witnesses the suicide of one of them and Simenon builds up a web of intrigue until the focus turns to yet another location, the city of Liège, in Belgium, from where the main participants originated.
The author employs his knowledge of the city where he was born and grew up, using actual locations with few changes of name or description. Maigret stays at the Hôtel du Chemin-de-Fer, which did exist at 11 Place des Guillemins, opposite the main railway station and he begins his enquiries in the Rue Haute-Sauvenière and the Rue Hors-Château, both situated on the higher ground on the west side of the city centre.
In this novel, Simenon draws on two of his experiences from the latter part of his time in Liège, before moving to Paris in 1922, as the main plot structure, in order to build up the storyline to a formidable tense dénouement.
These two experiences relate, firstly, to his involvement with a group of former students, many of whom had studied at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Liège (the Academy of Fine Art) and who called themselves La Caque (named after a type of barrel used for packing herring - an allusion to a tightly knit group), and secondly the death of a member of the group, and Simenon's friend, Joseph Kleine.
It was late in 1919, that Simenon was introduced to the group by his friend Henri-J. Moers, who worked on a rival newspaper La Meuse, and Simenon uses his knowledge of some of the activities of La Caque in creating the group for this novel. He even names one of them Jef Lombard, which is similar to a member of La Caque, a friend and one of the illustrators of his first novel Au Pont des Arches (Georges Sim, 1920), Jef (Jeph) Lambert.
Maigret, from the various meetings with the members of the group, who had called themselves The Companions of the Apocalypse [note: Simenon had used the name Les Compagnons de l'Apocalypse (The Companions of the Apocalypse) earlier in his novel entitled Le Château des Sables Rouges in 1929 under the pseudonym of Georges Sim.], gradually discovers the reason behind the tension, fear and suspicion inherent in all of them. This is all played out in an almost frenetic scene in a disused building behind the church of Saint-Pholien, during which Maigret gleans the facts from their past.
The crux of their agitation involves the circumstances surrounding the death of a follower of The Companions, Willy Mortier, and the part played by one of the group, Émile Klein.
The reason that the group in the novel originally came together has a parallel with the author's knowledge of La Caque. The latter would meet in a disused building reached by a narrow passageway, the Rue de Houpe (called by the fictitious name of the Rue du Pot-au-Noir in the novel), positioned at 13 Rue des Écoliers behind the Church of Saint-Pholien. The author recreates admirably the atmosphere in this old building, adding details about the locale, from various times in the past, in establishing the scene.
The death of Willy Mortier took place in this old building on the night of Christmas and as they carried him out to the Quai Sainte-Barbe 'The Meuse was in flood' and his body 'being swept away by the current'. There was a major flood during one Christmas and New Year period (1925-26) when the rising water of the River Meuse caused extensive flooding to many streets in the district of Outremeuse, where the climax of the novel takes place, and many other locations bordering the river.
Another member of The Companions of the Apocalypse, Émile Klein, plays a crucial role in the novel on that Christmas night, only to commit suicide later on the 15th of the following February. Simenon barely alters the surname of a friend, Joseph Kleine, who was found at 5-45 on the morning of the 2nd of March 1922 hanging from the door of the church of Saint-Pholien in the district of Outremeuse, using this tragic occurrence as the title of the novel, Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien (The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien).
View of the porch and doors of the Church of Saint-Pholien where in the early morning of the 2nd of March 1922 the body of Joseph Kleine was discovered. (Photo: Peter Foord 1993).
(Refer to Pierre Assouline's account below. Also Patrick Marnham in The Man Who Wasn't Maigret A Portrait of Georges Simenon, London, Bloomsbury 1992, and New York, Farrar, Straus, Giroux 1993, has an account in chapter five, pages 93 to 99).
Simenon makes a reference to the old and new church of Saint-Pholien. The old church was being demolished as the new, and present, one was being built. This new church (the fourth to bear the name) was consacrated on Monday the 18th of May 1914 by the Bishop of Liège, Monseigneur Rutten, whose secretary was Canon Lucas. The latter was a neighbour of the Simenon family when they lived in the Rue de l'Enseignement in the district of Outremeuse. Did the author remember this neighbour's name when he created a police detective in a few early novels written under pseudonyms and then Maigret's longest standing colleague?
After arriving at the truth, obtained from the survivors of the group, Maigret reaches a point of empathy, not so much for them, but for their families, their children in particular. And perhaps with this novel and with a later one, Les Trois Crimes de mes amis (The Three Crimes of my friends, 1938, - not translated), he laid a ghost from his past.
Pierre Assouline: SIMENON Biographie, Paris, Julliard 1992, page 66:
Un matin, le sacristan de l'église Saint-Pholien trouve le corps de Joseph Kleine pendu à l'un des battants avec son écharpe de l'aine. Le jeune peintre cocaïnomane s'est-il suicidé ou a-t-il été assassiné à l'issue d'un règlement de compte dont la drogue aurait été l'enjeu? On l'ignore. Simenon, quant à lui, s'en tient à la thèse du suicide. Il est l'un des deniers à avoir vu Kleine vivant, la veille du drame. Il l'a aidé à se mettre au lit car il était trop ivre par y parvenir tout seul. Comment Kleine a-t-il trouvé la force, quelques heures après, de se lever, de marcher et de se pendre? Sa mort, si elle a été provoquée par des tiers, ne procédait-elle pas d'un rite propre à La Caque? Un crime maquillé en suicide?
On l'ignore encore. Tout cela n'est que pure spéculation. Le drame marquera durablement Simenon, puisqu'il resurgira notamment dans Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien (1931) et dans Les Trois Crimes de mes amis (1938). Mais curieusement, alors que la mort tragique de Kleine est intervenue en mars, la mémoire de Simenon l'a restituée durant la nuit de Noël à la porte de l'église, comme s'il fallait l'inscrire dans le contexte d'une rédemption.
Translation by Jon Rothschild from Pierre Assouline: SIMENON A Biography. New York, Alfred A. Knopf 1997 and London, Chatto and Windus 1997, page 36:
One morning the sexton of the Church of Saint-Pholien found the body of Joseph Kleine hanging from a clapper on the front door, his woolen scarf wrapped around his neck. Was it suicide or had the young cocaine-snorting painter been murdered in a drug deal gone wrong? Simenon held out for suicide. He was one of the last to have seen Keine alive the night before, having helped to put him to bed. But if Kleine had been too drunk to walk, how had he found the strength to get up, go back to the club, and hang himself several hours later? If someone else killed him, was his death the result of some bizarre La Caque ritual? Was it murder made to look like suicide? The mystery was never solved, and the tragedy marked Simenon deeply. The incident recurs in Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien (1931) and Les Trois Crimes de mes amis (1938).
Another translation of Pierre Assouline's text by Peter Foord:
One morning, the sexton of the Church of Saint-Pholien found the body of Joseph Kleine hanging from one of the doors by his woollen scarf. Did the young cocaine addicted painter commit suicide or had he been murdered at the final settling of scores in which drugs would have been the stakes? One doesn't know. As for Simenon, he stuck to the theory of suicide. He was one of the last people to have seen Kleine alive on the evening previous to the tragedy. He had helped to put him to bed because he was too drunk to manage it himself. How had Kline found the strength, several hours later, to get up, to walk and to hang himself? If it had been caused by a third party, had his death not come about from a particular ritual of La Caque? A crime faked to look like suicide?
One still doesn't know. Everything is only pure speculation. The tragedy will leave its long term mark on Simenon, since it will reappear notably in Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien (1931) and in Les Trois Crimes de mes amis (1938). But curiously, while the tragic death of Kleine occurred in March, Simenon's memory has restored it to during Christmas night at the door of the church, as if there was a need to put it in the context of a redemption.
Closer view of the right hand door of the Church of Saint-Pholien. (Photo: Peter Foord 2003).
Pierre Assouline's entry on the death of Kleine is abridged in the official English translation, which applies to the whole of the author's translated text. This is a pity as Assouline writes about certain aspects of Simenon's life and work in more detail than others, as well as dealing with some items others ignore.
Also a small point, if my translation is correct. In the last sentence of this extract, omitted in the published translation, Assouline confuses the death of Klein, in the novel, as happening at Christmas instead of that of Mortier's.
The translation of Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien (Maigret and the hundred gibbets) by Tony White, published in Great Britain by Penguin Books 2025 in 1963, is closer to Simenon's French text than the earlier, and more wayward one, by Anthony Abbot in 1932/33.