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le pendu de saint-pholien

26 march 2012

I've been mildly interested lately in how clothes function in fiction. I was the more interested to run across George Simenon's Le pendu de Saint-Pholien (1931). It's lurid, suspenseful, broadly splashed, and – serendipitously – its mystery is about a suit of clothes.

The story opens at a train station on the Dutch-German border. The first character we see is dressed "aux vêtements usés jusqu'à la trame . . . coiffé d'un chapeau souple [in threadbare clothes . . . and soft hat]" (9). He will die soon. He's immediately contrasted to another man: "Il portait un épais pardessus noir à col de velours et son nœud de cravate était monté sur un appareil en celluloïd." [He wore a thick black overcoat with a velvet collar and the knot in his tie was held in place by a celluloid loop.] (9) The intrinsic contrast is enough to sort them into social categories, but for readers of Simenon, the clues from the clothing are enough to give the second man an identity: he is Maigret.

The man in threadbare clothes is carrying a cheap suitcase. Maigret isn't even investigating him, but he buys a matching suitcase, exchanges the suitcases surreptitiously, and follows Threadbare Man to Bremen. They check into adjoining hotel rooms. Through the keyhole, Maigret watches the hapless man open the wrong suitcase, moan in despair . . . and kill himself. Maigret opens the man's original suitcase and finds

Un complet gris sombre, moins usé que celui du mort.
Sous le complet, il y avait deux chemises sales, élimées au col et aux poignets, roulées en boule.
. . . Un faux col à petites rayures roses, qui avait été porté au moins quinze jours, car il était tout noir à l'endroit où il avait touché le cou de son propriétaire. . . Tout noir et effiloché. . .
C'était tout!

[A dark gray suit, less worn than the dead man's.
Under the suit, there were two dirty shirts, threadbare at collar and cuffs, rolled into a ball.
. . . A detachable collar with fine pink stripes, that had been worn for at least two weeks, because it was quite black where it had touched its owner's neck. . . Very black, and frayed. . . And that was all!] (20)
Dirty laundry, and "au moins de trois tailles trop grands [more than three sizes too big]" (22) for the dead man. Why would you kill yourself because you'd lost somebody else's dirty old clothes?

As in M. Gallet décédé, the unravelling of the mystery involves a long-assumed identity – as well as, naturally, a long-hidden crime. Initially, there's no crime at all. Or if there is, the crime is Maigret's. By stealing the suitcase – upon no reasonable suspicion! – he has precipitated a suicide. Only after investigating the suicide, and the truly weird developments that ensue, does Maigret come to the realization that there is a crime: a crime he proceeds to solve and then to suspend judgment upon. The criminals walk free.

This is extremely complicated stuff for 174 pages of pulp, and it's more than incipiently postmodern. The dead man has stolen an identity, so that he can lead a life of blackmail. He extorts thousands of francs from men who participated with him in a thrill-killing a decade before – and then refuses to make use of the money, burning it as an expiation of his own complicity. The only thing that enables the blackmail is the suit of clothes, worn by one of the gang on the night of the murder, and soaked with the victim's blood. Once he loses the suit of clothes, he's done for.

Once he's done for, Maigret inherits the set of clothes, and is shadowed everywhere by one of the gang. The young thrill-seekers are now respectable bourgeois men, and they will stop at nothing to conceal their past. But there are several logical problems for the reader. If the gang can so easily shadow Maigret (at one point stealing the useless suitcase from him), and if Maigret could so easily shadow the blackmailer, stealing his suitcase, then what prevented the gang from stealing the suitcase in the first place?

I didn't actually ask this while I was reading, which indicates Simenon's skill at deflecting overly picayune questions of logic. But it also deepens the psychological mystery of the book. As so often, the detective himself is complicit in the crime, and not just because he makes the ultimate moral call to cover it up. Like a host of fictional detectives, Maigret understands far too well what might drive men to certain crimes. In Simenon's long series of novels, Maigret often shows great moral indignation, but not here. His sympathies are not with the suicidal blackmailer (himself a murderer) or even the original victim (himself an amoral adventurer). They are with the innocent children of the gang. "il y a cinq gosses dans l'histoire," he concludes ["there are five kids in the picture," 180]. For their sake, he drops the whole sordid, long-buried affair.

Simenon, Georges. Le pendu de Saint-Pholien. 1931. Paris: Presses Pocket, 1977.