Kees Popinga, a conventional Dutch family man, learns that his employer has bankrupted the firm, thus depriving him of both income and savings. With all the underpinnings of his life gone, he suddenly takes one of those trains he had been watching for so long and goes to Paris, committing a more or less accidental murder along the way. The rest of the book shows him on the run, wanted by the police of two countries.
Although Simenon is most famous as the author of the Inspector Maigret mysteries, and there is certainly a police investigation in this book, the story is told from the point of view of the criminal, not the detective. There is no mystery here; Popinga leaves more than enough evidence to be identified easily, and he soon starts writing letters to the papers and the police. Even the term "on the run" is wrong; "on the walk" would be more appropriate, for Popinga remains icily calm. Although the press describe him as a madman, he has never felt more in control; it was his previous bourgeois life that was the lie, not this one.
Why does Simenon choose a Dutch protagonist and set the opening of his novel in the far North of Holland? As a French-speaking Belgian, it seems he despised the phlegmatic Flemish and Dutch temperament, and viewed their smug respectability as the death of the soul. For Kees Popinga, nearing 40, epitomizes the family values. He is a good provider, with a solid job; he has a good house in a good neighborhood, equipped with the most modern appliances; he has two perfectly-spaced children that he sends to good schools, and a wife who is so faceless that she is referred to from beginning to end as Mother. Yet, as Luc Sante describes it in his fine introduction to the NYRB edition (though NOT to be read before the novel itself), "whatever pin was holding Popinga together has been pulled out." Like a grenade, he explodes.
But unlike a grenade, he does so gradually, retaining traces of his bourgeois habits to the end. Clerklike, he keeps a meticulous notebook of his doings. Although described as a sex fiend, his relationships with the women he picks up are almost sexless. He approaches his life as a wanted man with the same care he might have used to organize an office. This is the second of Simenon's so-called "hard novels" (romans durs) that I have read, after his earlier TROPIC MOON. Both are relentless psychological studies of men who lose their hold on normal life. But whereas the earlier book was as hot as its African setting, the hardness here is that of ice; imagine a Balzac or a Dostoyevsky describing an inevitable degeneration, but in compressed form and without the passion. Chilling.
All the same, I preferred TROPIC MOON, because of the wider sweep of its indictment of colonialism. There is social criticism here too, of a certain ideal of respectability; but that is less easily localized . . . and perhaps just a little too close to home.