Newhaven-Dieppe by Georges Simenon – All Along the Watchtower.

September 26, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

Newhaven-Dieppe by Georges Simenon (1933) Original French title: L’homme de Londres.

L’homme de Londres by Georges Simenon was our Book Club choice for September. It is translated into English under the title Newhaven-Dieppe.

Louis Maloin works the night shift at the coastal train station in Dieppe, France. He’s a switchman, in charge of all the trains that liaise the actual Dieppe railway station and the ferry harbor. When the book opens, we’re with Maloin in his watchtower over the harbor and the ferry from Newhaven is about to disembark its passengers and goods. The arrival of passengers is organized in such a way that they cannot escape custom before going on land.

Maloin is looking out the window, observing the passengers who arrive. He has a privileged view on the ferries and trains that come in and out of the harbor.

He notices two men disembarking from the ferry. One of them, a man in a grey suit, swiftly gets around the line to customs with a suitcase in hand. Nobody had seen him but Maloin. The man goes to stand with the people who are on the quay, as if he were waiting for a passenger instead of having just stepped out of the ferry. Maloin is intrigued, wondering what kind of contraband the man carries in his suitcase. He doesn’t say anything, he too would try to avoid customs if he could.

Later that night, he sees the two men again and the one in the grey suit pushes the other into the sea while attempting to keep the suitcase. He fails. The other one falls into the water, drowns, taking the suitcase away with him.

Maloin witnesses everything and instead of going to the police, he dives into the harbor and fishes the suitcase. Back in the safety of his glass tower, he opens it and finds the equivalent of 540 000 francs in British pounds. He decides to keep the money and hide it in his closet in the tower.

The man in the grey suits stays in Dieppe. He and Maloin see each other in town. They both know about the suitcase and don’t act on it. The Englishman doesn’t confront Maloin and the latter almost wishes that he did.

Maloin doesn’t know what to do about the money but he never really thinks that he witnessed a murder, that this is ill-acquired money and that he should contact the authorities.

The hesitation of the two men will be fatal. Indeed, it leaves enough time for Inspector Molisson from Scotland Yard to arrive in Dieppe. He starts digging around. He knows the thief in the grey suit and he’s after the money. His presence will set the rest of the events into motion.

Newhaven-Dieppe can be easily read in one sitting. It’s one of the romans durs and Maloin is a strange character. Maloin’s motivations are hard to pinpoint. We never understand why he made that impulse decision to pick up the suitcase and not report the murder.

He’s married with two children and he has a stable job with the railroad company. We’re in 1933, the times are difficult and the family struggles to make ends meet. Is it because his wife comes from a wealthier family and because his brother-in-law looks down on him? Is it the shame he feels that his daughter Henriette has to work as a servant at the local butcher because her family needs the money?

Maloin doesn’t know himself why he acts that way. Simenon seems to tell us that we never know ourselves completely. The ending of the book and Maloin reminded me of Meursault, in L’Etranger by Albert Camus, although it was written decades later.

This is a very atmospheric novel. It is set in Dieppe, in winter. Simenon excels in the description of the foggy shores, the little town with its shops. The sea, the tides influence people’s lives. We see a bit of the life in the seaside town in winter, when the hotels and the casino are closed for the season. Only the locals are there, and the only strangers in town are the occasional salesmen and business men who come through Dieppe. Simenon describes the streets, the lights, the cafés and the local life with the fishermen and people picking up seafood at the shore. I didn’t know that trains rode like tramways between the main station and the ferries embankment in order to make a connection between ferries and rail. It worked for goods and passengers.

Simenon’s style is fluid and easy to read. I noticed that he used English words like banknotes, policemen and meeting instead of billet de banque, policiers or réunion when he was referring to something British. The French readership of the 1930s would have been less exposed to the English language than nowadays. How was this perceived?

I also picked a slightly misogynistic vibe. Poor Madame Maloin only gets a first name in the last minute, when Maloin finally acknowledges her as his equal. Otherwise, she’s just a wife, she has no other identity. I suppose it goes with the times.

Newhaven-Dieppe is a cleverly crafted novella about a man who acts out of character, doesn’t know why and wrecks his life. Noir is the color.

Highly recommended.

  1. September 26, 2019 at 7:48 pm

    Not a Simenon I’ve ever come across in the past, so it’s good to hear about it here. I do find his romans durs interesting from a psychological point of view – and, as you’ve highlighted in your review, they’re often atmospheric. What did the other members of your group think about it? Did it raise lots of points for discussion?

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    • September 29, 2019 at 6:44 am

      I haven’t read many of his romans durs, so I can’t really tell you how this one compares to the others.

      We all enjoyed it and found the atmosphere well pictured. I’ve been to Dieppe and some of the others too: we recognized the layout of the city.
      We discussed Maloin and his motivations. The most interesting part about his behaviour is in the last third of the book and involves the denouement: I can’t tell you more without spoilers.

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  2. September 26, 2019 at 9:50 pm

    Simenon’s romans durs are quite dark, and much more about the psychology of the characters very often. I love the Maigrets, but I have read some of his other fiction and it’s always intriguing.

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    • September 29, 2019 at 6:57 am

      I associate Maigret with old-fashoned TV shows and I’ve stayed away from Simenon for years because of that.
      Guy from His Futile Preoccupations is the one who convinced me to try Simenon again.

      This one is good and it was written early in his career. A promising writer, if you look at it that way.

      It’s interesting to see that this book is contemporary to great American Noir fiction. I haven’t read any biography of Simenon, so I don’t know what he was reading in the 1930s and which writers were his models. It seems that he was developing his how brand of Noir on his side.

      Liked by 1 person

      • September 29, 2019 at 11:55 pm

        When I was young I went through a “psychological” phase, starting I think with Poe, and graduating to Dostoyevsky. “Simenons”, as distinct from Maigrets, were a part of that, getting inside the mind of usually, an ordinary person forced by circumstances to commit a crime.

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  3. September 27, 2019 at 5:06 am

    I’m trying to read SImenon’s Le passager du Polarlys at the moment, but I’m finding it very difficult. I haven’t quite decided to give up, but it’s a struggle…

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    • September 29, 2019 at 6:59 am

      Well, that surprises me because he writes rather straightforward sentences. Is there a lot of slang?

      There are a lot of expressions linked to the criminal world that can be difficult for me in English when I read classic Noir. Is it the same issue?

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      • September 29, 2019 at 8:02 am

        Yes, it’s the vocabulary. In Ch 1 there’s a lot of vocab to do with ships — which I don’t know anyway — and some of them must be slang because none of my dictionaries help and neither does Google Translate. I think I’m just going to have to press on without always knowing what it means, and hope that I don’t miss any vital clues.

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        • September 29, 2019 at 8:16 am

          I understand the problem with ship, trees, flowers, agriculture vocabulary. I have the same issue in English sometimes. (like in For the term of his natural life)
          But then I think that probably I don’t know the words in French either so I just keep reading and understand the global context.

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