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."
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|
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.