I’ve read more than forty novels by Georges Simenon (1903-89), who published close to five hundred, more than two hundred in his own name. I trust New York Review books to pick from those I have not read, and have been rewarded by finding some masterpieces (Dirty Snow, Red Lights; Tropic Moon I had already found on my own). All evoke particular locations, including the provincial towns in Act of Passion (first published in 1947 as Lettre à mon juge (Letter to My Judge) while Simenon was living in North America and had taken up with a younger woman hired as his secretary; he would divorce his wife and marry the younger woman in 1950).
Not just the cases intuited by Parisian Inspector Maigret, but Simenon’s romans durs (hard[-boiled] novels) focus on transgressions, chiefly murder and adultery. Martine, the woman murdered by Charles Alavoine, who is writing form to explain himself to the examining magistrate, does not appear until nearly the midpoint of the novel (which is 212 pages long).
The backstory of the conventional country physician whose second wife, Armande (a widow who entered the household no nurse a home-quarantined daughter through diphtheria), ran his life and home didn’t interest me, and I almost didn’t get to Martine. In any case, Martine is a less vivid character than the narrator’s humble mother and self-assured second wife. She is comparable in her indistinctness to the first wife, who died just after giving birth to a second daughter (who weighed in at 12 pounds).
The clipped voice of Dr. Alavoine is not especially interesting and far from insightful. Its main interest is that it is the only Simenon novel in the first-person that I can recall. The obsession with Martine, who like him misses a train in Nantes is barely credible. That the good doctor wants something of his own is credible, though he contrives to have his wife manage Martine, too, who starts working for him as a bookkeeper. His jealousy about her past liaisons is harder for me to credit, and that he feels he must kill the thing he loves even harder. (Martine has no agency and no consciousness in the novel, so “thing” is le mot juste.)
The New York Review edition has an introduction by Roger Ebert (who begins by noting that he has read more words (and certainly more books!) by Simenon than by any other 20th-century writer. I don’t agree with his view of Alavoine as a fetishist. Simenon, oui; Alavoine, non! Ebert is on solider ground characterizing Simenon’s narrative voice (in general, not just in Act of Passion) as “direct, detached, factual.” Also, “he describes [Martine] slightingly. She has no particular personality. For him she is an object.”
In 1961 Jean Delannoy (who directed many Maigret movies) made a film based on this novel starring Jean Gabin (who played Maigret in many movies).
©2017, 2019, Stephen O. Murray