The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien starts in medias res, as Horace thought all great narratives should. In a train station on the German-Dutch border, Inspector Maigret clandestinely switches a suitcase and then follows its owner to a humble hotel, where he peeks through a keyhole as this down-on-his-luck young man opens the case and – finding its original contents gone – promptly blows his own head off. When Maigret opens the first case, to see what might drive a person to such despair, he finds, stunningly, nothing but an old, tattered suit, several sizes too big for the young man.
The investigation entangles Maigret with a group of suspicious Belgians – wealthy Belloir, the photoengraver Jef Lombard, and businessman Joseph Van Damme. He eventually learns that the three men (along with their friend Janin) are trying to cover up the suicide of Émile Klein, almost ten years earlier – but why? In a typical mystery, the plot converges on a single question, to which the detective delivers his definitive answer. In the Maigret novels, things are less tidy, and often the case turns out to be the least perplexing problem the Inspector faces.
Here the investigation leads Maigret to the Companions of the Apocalypse, a group of pretentious young people whose flirtations with nihilism and violence end in the murder of a Jewish student named Willy Mortier. As he confesses to the Inspector, Belloir describes the victim in terms that chillingly prefigure the kind of rhetoric that would become inescapable in Europe just a few years later: “’He hated us! And we hated him! On top of everything else, he was stingy – and cynical about it . . . He was the alien, hostile element that crops up almost every time when men get together.’” Are we supposed to sympathize? Although Pierre Assouline’s biography devotes several pages to evidence of Simenon’s anti-Semitism, this prejudice is almost indiscernible in the Maigret novels. Only a reader already sensitive to the question will wonder to what degree the author shared Belloir’s attitudes about the “alien, hostile element.”
The title of an earlier translation, Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, refers to the drawings Jef Lombard did in the wake of Émile’s death – hanged man after hanged man, obsessively, many of them dangling from the church where Klein hanged himself. These artworks are still hanging themselves, in Lombard’s studio, but, as the years since the deaths accumulate, are being crowded out by more innocuous images: landscapes, portraits, family pictures, scribbles by the kids. This process, this slow erasure of youthful mistakes, operating alongside their painful and destructive persistence, is perhaps the real mystery of the book. Maigret’s sense that it works in the direction of justice may account for his decision to let the Belgians go. As he says to Lucas: “‘You know, vieux, ten more cases like that one and I’ll hand in my resignation. Because it would prove that there’s a good old Good Lord up there who’s decided to take up police work.’”
The novel also contains a remarkable early description of Maigret, one that portrays the Inspector as relentless, impassive, perhaps a little slow – almost a French golem. We realize as we read that we are seeing him through the Belgians’ eyes:
Maigret was tall and wide, particularly broad-shouldered, solidly built, and his run-of-the-mill clothes emphasized his peasant stockiness. His features were as still and dull as a cow’s. In this he resembled certain figures out of children’s nightmares, those monstrously big blank-faced creatures that bear down upon sleepers as if to crush them.
The children who surround Maigret’s targets are figures for the children that the killers and the accomplices and the dead men once were. The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien is complex enough to make Maigret – its embodiment of the law – both the protector of these once and future children, and the nightmare coming to crush them.
Simenon, Georges. The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien. Trans. Linda Coverdale. London: Penguin, 2014.