Friday, July 20, 2012

FFB: The Hatter's Phantoms - Georges Simenon

It took me three tries before I found a Simenon novel that I could get lost in. I chose to avoid Maigret and was searching for something different.  In browsing through our library's vast selection of his books I picked up a copy of The Widow (made into the superb movie La Veuve Couderc with Simone Signoret and Alain Delon) which had a lengthy introduction by Paul Theroux that revealed he was quite well read in Simenon's oeuvre. There were so many titles mentioned with tantalizing plot tidbits tempting me to try any number of them. It was the first time I learned of the term roman durs which Simenon himself coined to describe his more serious books as opposed to those he considered his popular fiction. Among those novels are The Man Who Liked to Watch Trains Go By, Red Lights, Dirty Snow, and Monsieur Monde Disappears. Apparently The Venice Train is also considered one of these "hard novels." I read that book but I found it to be a straightforward crime novel along the lines of A Simple Plan about a man who comes into possession of a great deal of money which may or may not be connected to the murder of a woman. It had in common a few plot points and themes with another psychological crime novel that I found a lot more interesting -- The Hatter's Phantoms (orig. French ed. 1949, English transl. 1976).

Léon Labbé has a secret life that is uncovered by the slightest of glances. One night while in a cafe, his neighbor across the street, a timid tailor named Kachoudas, sees a tiny piece of newsprint stuck to the cuff of Labbe's pants. It is carefully trimmed to a perfect square and consists of two letters, n and t. Kachoudas is unaccountably rendered speechless and quietly points to it. Labbé picks it off his cuff thanking the tailor. Later that evening as part of his nightly routine Kachoudas follows Labbé out of the cafe down a dimly lit street and becomes an accidental eyewitness to a crime. Labbé appears out of the shadows and gives the following warning: "You'd be making a mistake, Kachoudas."

In the next scene we see Labbé at his home sitting at a table with a newspaper meticulously snipping letters, words and sometimes complete phrases and gluing them to a sheet of paper. This is one of the many anonymous letters describing in detail his most recent late night exploit. He is the man the newspapers have dubbed "the Strangler" and he has been murdering old women with a garrotte made from an old cello string attached to two blocks of wood. Labbé is sure that his neighbor has linked the piece of paper with those anonymous letters which have been the subject of a local journalist's columns on the murders.

What begins as a routine study of a murderer and his crimes gradually becomes a more absorbing study of a criminal who falls victim to his own morbid imagination. The story details how Labbé, the hatter of the title, has fashioned a world of order and routine that masks his true murderous self. In addition to the several old women he killed the reader learns that he has constructed an elaborate charade in which he makes it appear that his invalid wife is still alive though she too was one of his vicitms. Part of the hatter's nightly routine is watching Kachoudas in his squalid studio apartment. So poor is the tailor none of his windows have curtains making it easy for Labbé to spy on the Kachoudas family. Like the hats he crafts and tends to in his day job Labbé fabricates a relationship with the tailor in which the two become both friend and foe. The hatter imagines the tailor plotting to turn him in for the 20,000 franc reward while simultaneously dreaming of adding Kachoudas to his roster of victims. His toying with the tailor is often more insidious than the actual murders.

Michel Serrault as Labbé  in Claude Chabrol's 1982 film
Simenon gets a lot of mileage out the plot motif of the criminal who obsessively dwells on how others perceive and think about him. The daydreaming becomes tainted and poisoned until it is converted into mad imaginings run wild. In trying to maintain a facade of normalcy the Simenon protagonist will sacrifice his integrity, morality and often his sanity. The fascination lies in reading how reality can never live up to his plans and ideas, how his crushing guilt usually leads to a tragic end. This theme can be found in any number of his crime novels and was the most noticeable similarity in all three books I read, though in The White Horse Inn (my least favorite of the trio) its presence was more subtle.

Labbé has a lot in common with Justin Calmar of The Venice Train who is entrusted by a complete stranger to deliver a briefcase he discovers contains over 200,000 francs in various currencies. The two men are utterly trapped in their heads, spending every waking hour trying to outwit and outguess the behavior of everyone they encounter. They also expend an enormous amount of energy deceiving their friends and family in constructing complex dual lives. The hatter must make his shop assistant and maid believe his wife is alive while Calmar convinces his wife that he has become an avid and very lucky horse race fanatic. In the end their lies and scheming get the better of them. These are criminals who seem to be screaming out to be caught no matter how much they may appear to be acting the opposite. And when the tragic end comes, for the most part, it is their greatest relief.

This week as part of Friday's Forgotten Books we are paying tribute to the prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon.  For more a full list of reviews and insights into his work (there's bound to be a few Maigret books in the bunch) go to Patti Abbot's blog here.

And for those interested in a fine example of atmospheric film making, beautifully shot, framed, and lit, you can watch the scene in which Labbé lures Kachoudas to the site of his future crime from Claude Chabrol's film Les Fantômes du Chapelier by clicking here.

12 comments:

  1. Facinating stuff John - Simenon did kpep coming back to this theme of the alternate / secret or double life, which is endlessly fascinating. I haven't read this one or seen the Chabrol movie actually - look forward to remdying both of these, cheers mate. Love the sound of that Theroux intro - haven't read anythign by him on a looong time

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    1. I'm surprised you chose a Maigret novel, Sergio. I expected nothing but Maigret, but I'm glad there were a few of his better crime novels written up this week. RED LIGHTS and THE MAN WHO WATCHED TRAINS GO BY are two of the best of his roman durs and readers will get to know them better through the two review this week.

      I know this book so well now that if I came across an unsubtitled version of Chabrol's film I'd watch it based solely on the quality of the clip I saw last night at YouTube. Do click on the link and watch it. It's Chabrol as his most Hitchockian.

      Julian Symons mentioned in his NY Times review for The Hatter's Phantoms that although he hated the US translation and overall thought the book one of Simenon's lesser efforts he felt it would make an excellent movie. I was impressed with the movie-like quality of the book as well. A voyeur element in any crime novel always makes me think of movies. And Labbe's spying in this book makes for great movie scenes. I may not agree with much of what Symons thought of the book, but at least he and I have the same cinematic vision. ;^)

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    2. Practically all the Simenon on my shelf are in Italian so actually my options became very, very limited when coming up with something for Patti's meme ... if that sounds like a defence, it's not, I loved re-reading it! But as you allude to, the translations are, or can be, a major factor. The Penguin version I was working from was basically OK but I'll be scouting around to find out which versions in English are considered to have been well done (otherwise I'll stick my lingua Italiana as my schoolboy French is just not up to the task anymore, sad to say).

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  2. Great review! I really enjoyed your comments about duality and the secret life. I think Simenon himself dealt with similar issues: the external facade masking hidden demons of an obsessive-compulsive nature. The book I wrote about, Across the Street, has some similarities with a woman compulsively watching the lives of her neighbors and becoming obsessed with one particular family--with disastrous results.

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    1. I was glad to see you chose one of Simenon's lesser known books, Deb! Have you become an acolyte at the altar of obscure books? :^) Simenon had an near perverted interest in voyerurism. I'm interested in reading a biogrpahy of him now. He was part of some hedonistic set when he was a young man. I am slowly learning that many of his books include characters based on his acquaintances and former lovers and make allusions to his past life among that pleasure seeking set of friends.

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    2. I read Simenon's autobiography a few years back, but it seemed very self- serving with a lot of bragging (especially regarding his various amorous conquests) and a lot of anger toward his wife who he blamed in part for their daughter's suicide. I then read a biography (can't remember now who wrote it) of him; it was almost as long, but a lot more even- handed. I would certainly recommend the bio and say take the autobiography with a very large pinch of salt.

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  3. I'll have to track down that Paul Theroux essay on Simenon. I find a completely different sensibility in Simenon's stand-alone novels than in the Maigret series. I have a copy of THE HATTER'S PHANTOMS and now I can't wait to read it!

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  4. This sounds like a psychological crime novel that even I might enjoy.

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  5. I've only read some of the Maigret novels and short stories, and have enjoyed them all. The non-series books sound more challenging.

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  6. All I know about Simenon are/were the Maigret novels I read a while back. I stumbled over a cache of Maigret short stories in MAIGRET'S CHRISTMAS at a Bouchercon event years ago and that was my intro to Simenon's writing.

    I was surprised actually, by how much I enjoyed the few books of his that I read but damn if I can remember anything about them. I've just read so many books over my lifetime that it's practically impossible, I suppose, to recall them all.

    This was an enjoyable post, John. I liked learning a few bits and pieces about the man behind Maigret and also reading about one of his non-Maigret books.

    I hadn't even known Simenon wrote anything but Maigret. So obviously I'm a lost cause. :)

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  7. I enjoyed reading your review, John. It's interesting to read so many different, albeit informed, views about Simenon and his work. I'll definitely check out the link to Claude Chabrol's film. Meanwhile, thank you very much for your very generous offer to ship his books. That's mighty kind of you, indeed. Just yesterday I found that an online retail site, the Indian equivalent of Amazon, is selling some of Simenon's novels. I intend to buy a couple to start with.

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