The Inspector Maigret books by Georges Simenon are to say the least, exquisite in their wake and poignant in their sweep. The third book in the series, “The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien” is no exception. Possessing un-envisaged twists and unpredictable turns, Inspector Maigret’s strange trysts – experienced within the geographies of Belgium and France- with three peculiarly intense individuals, “The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien” is an absolute ripper.
The book begins in the most non-decrepit of settings. A quaint railway station situated at the border separating Netherlands from Germany. “For Gare de Neuschanz is at the northern tip of Holland, on the German border. A railway station of no importance. Neuschanz is barely a village. It isn’t on any main railway line. A few trains come through mostly in the morning and evening, carrying German workers attracted by the high wages paid in Dutch factories.”
A ‘suspicious’ tramp carrying a battered suitcase is followed by Inspector Maigret. The shabby individual purchases a ticket to Bremen, and while waiting for the train to arrive frequents the wash room at the waiting lounge. Unbeknownst to the traveler, Inspector Maigret replaces the battered suitcase being conveyed by the tramp with an identical one stuffed with newspapers. Maigret also succeeds in booking himself a room adjacent to the one checked into by the shoddy traveler. However, Maigret is in for a rude shock when the traveler upon realizing that his suitcase has been pilfered and replaced with a fake replica, pulls out a revolver and shoots himself.
Maigret’s quandary is further exacerbated when all he finds in the tramp’s briefcase are a pair of crumpled dirty shirts and a blood stained suit worn by repeated use. A scribbled note retrieved by Maigret takes him to Belgium and an unanticipated acquaintance with three individuals of varied character, social standing and disposition. Joseph Van Damme, Import-Export Commission Agent; Belloir, the Deputy Director of a Bank and Jef Lombard a photo engraver. What could be the connecting link between the miserable man who took his own life and three genteel, refined and sophisticated individuals?
When Maigret experiences two attempts at murder, he becomes convinced that there is someone with a murky secret who wants Maigret out of the way at any and every cost. How Maigret gets to the bottom of the riddle forms the rest of Simenon’s gripping tale.
Writing in a style that is crisp, matter-of-fact and bereft of convoluted references, Simenon’s book is a veritable treat for his readers. For example, in describing about an inherent human nature of Schadenfreude, Simenon writes, “‘When there’s a fire, onlookers can’t help wanting it to last, to be a spectacular fire, and when the river is rising, newspaper readers hope for major flooding they can talk about for the next twenty years. They want something interesting, and it doesn’t matter what! Or when describing the setting of the morgue where the unfortunate suicide victim’s body is placed – “More sinister precisely because of its sharp, clean lines and perspectives, the uniform white of the walls, which reflected a harsh light, and the refrigeration units as shiny as machines in a power station. The place looked like a model factory: one where the raw material was human bodies.”
“The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien displays both the selfless and selfish sides characterizing a fictitious tragedy. More than anything else it brings to the fore, the extraordinary prowess of a natural writer who wields his pen to produce near miraculous outcomes.