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l'homme de londres

15 december 2010

Georges Simenon's early novel L'homme de Londres is a sharp twist on two modernist subgenres: the doppelgänger story and the homme-traqué story.

Protagonist Louis Maloin is also a "wrong man," to borrow a term from Hitchcock films, though he's an interesting shade less wrong than he might be. Maloin is a switchman in the harbor town of Dieppe. He works in a "cabine vitrée," a glass box atop a tower that looms over the trainyard. (Such a glass box would reappear late in Simenon's career, in La cage de verre, 1971.)

Maloin is a functionary who sees all but is invisible. One night, he witnesses smuggling: a man tosses a briefcase over a customs barrier to an accomplice. Later that night, Maloin sees the smuggler kill the accomplice – and sees the briefcase fall into the harbor.

Being as good as invisible, Maloin fishes the briefcase out of the harbor, to find that it contains £5000 in small bills. That's not something you'd kill for in 2010, but in 1934 it would have bought about what half a million dollars buys today. It's about half a million 1930s French francs, and if Maloin can just keep from going nuts over his windfall, he'll be set for life.

Maloin buys a new pipe. He gets his daughter to quit her job, and buys her some fancy clothes. But the murderer is still out there somewhere, "un homme traqué, quelqu'un qui n'a plus rien à perdre [a hunted man, someone with nothing left to lose]" (119). Both Maloin and the killer (an Englishman named Brown) are thinking about just one thing – the valise full of money – but neither one knows just how much the other knows about him.

Simenon's absolute best books (much as I love the Maigret series) are the handful of hunted-man (homme-traqué) novels, including L'assassin (1937) and L'homme qui regardait passer les trains (1938). Francis Carco gave the genre its name with the 1922 novel called simply L'homme traqué, but it has had long legs in print and on the screen.

L'homme de Londres is worthy of comparison to the best of Carco, or to Simenon's other finest books. But as I said, it's twisty. Layering a doppelgänger, a double, onto the hunted man makes that double (Maloin, the character we're closest to as readers) into a case study in the psychology of ethics. As the novel winds towards its sinister but unpredictable conclusion, Maloin can't stop thinking about how much Brown resembles him, about "les deux maisons: celle de Newhaven et celle de Dieppe, avec les deux femmes, les enfants [their two houses, one in Newhaven and one in Dieppe, with their two wives, their children]" (185). Are we all hommes traqués?

Simenon, Georges. L'homme de Londres. 1934. Paris: Presses Pocket, 1976.