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le passager du "polarlys"

25 march 2010

My copy of Le passager du "Polarlys" is no elegant example of 20th-century French book manufacture. I bought it for £1 sterling about 15 years ago, probably somewhere in the Charing Cross Road. It's a pulpy 1977 mass-market paperback with yellow-tinted edges and a naff picture of a boat on the front. (The novel itself was apparently first published in 1932, and is generally unregarded.) Though my expectations were low, Le passager du "Polarlys" turns out to be a tightly-constructed shipboard whodunit, well worth the day or so I spent reading it.

The Polarlys is a coasting vessel that makes regular runs along the entire Norwegian shore, from relatively temperate Stavanger to inhospitable Kirkenes near the Soviet border. The perspective of the novel is limited to the ship's captain, who faces a sinister situation. As the Polarlys was leaving Hamburg, several new faces came aboard – a nondescript male passenger, an attractive young woman, a taciturn student, an ex-con stoker, a wet-behind-the-ears third officer, and a police inspector. No sooner is the ship on the high seas than the police inspector is murdered in his cabin, and the nondescript man has disappeared. In Stavanger, another police inspector comes aboard, and the ship's company heads for the Arctic, with a murderer likely aboard.

Heavens to Agatha Christie. In fact, this early Simenon is closer to the Christie formula – eclectic suspects cut off from the world – than anything else I've read by him. Yet, like Maigret, our protagonist doesn't solve the mystery by assembling rigorous proofs built on clues. Instead, in the close quarters of a small ship, he gets to know his suspects, and eventually realizes that only one murderer fits the psychological facts of the case.

In best Christie fashion, the true killer isn't the first or even the second most likely. He's well-hidden, even given the lack of hiding places. All the same, Le passager du "Polarlys" is no match for a good Poirot. It isn't something for a fan of whodunits, even though it is a whodunit. Simenon excelled at finding evocative settings for his crime novels, and "doing" them thoroughly. I suspect he'd been on a boat like this for some reason (he was fond of boats his whole life, living on a houseboat for a while). He saw the advantages of a ship like the Polarlys for a little, claustrophobic novel, and he carried it out briskly.

Simenon, Georges. Le passager du "Polarlys." 1932. Paris: Presses Pocket, 1977.