Book Review: The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By, Georges Simenon

At the end of last year my mother suffered a stroke and spent a couple of months in Salisbury hospital. She recovered amazingly well and I’m looking forward to being able to go an see her for a long weekend. We have tried not to play fast with the rules, unlike Dominic Cummings, but as soon as the Covid rules are relaxed I’m on my way. In the stroke ward of the hospital a small room had been set aside for friends and families, with a coffee machine, a comfy sofa and a couple of large shelves stacked with books. Most of the books didn’t grab my attention, but this one did, and six months later I’ve finally finished it.

20200526_073811333188345.jpg

It was not what I was expecting, on many levels. I expected a gentle story, maybe set in Norfolk. Instead it was set in war torn 1930’s Paris. The book was first published in 1934 and sometimes the history behind an author is more interesting. Georges Simenon moved from Leige to Paris at 19 to become a novelist. He was fairly prolific writing over 400 novels, including 75 Inspector Maigret books, which was turned into a TV series on ITV staring Rowan Atkinson. I’m sorry but I never saw it or even heard of it. Half Man Half Biscuit famously said that in the kingdom of the bland it’s 9pm on ITV.

Anyway, back to the book, and the main character, Kees Popinga catches a train to Paris after his boss admits that the company he works for is bankrupt, financially and morally, handing Kees a large sum of cash. His boss then fakes his own suicide. On his way to Paris he meets a woman of easy virtue and possibly murders her, but possibly he doesn’t. Here begins his gradual descent into madness, as a local Police Inspector tracks him down. Kees believes himself to be intellectually superior to the inspector, sending letters to the police and the press, unconsciously wanting to be caught. The glimpses of 1930s Paris is also highly entertaining. The book vaguely reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye, but with a much older character. An unexpected and interesting little book, although I doubt if I will read anything else by this astonishingly prolific author.

Currently I’m reading The Commander In Cheat by Rick Reilly and American Gods (the director’s cut) by Neil Gaiman.