Generally, I wait for the New York Review Books editors to decide which of the hundreds of Georges Simenon romans durs (hard-boiled novels) to read next. I picked up The Suspect without their imprimatur, because it is about dissension within a terrorist cell — anarchists in France in the late 1930s (the book was first published in French in 1938). The protagonist is in Brussels, wanted by the French police. An inept member of his group comes, trailed by police, to tell Pierre Chave that the Paris group, at the impetus of K, who may be an agent provocateur, is planning to blow up a factory during the day while many people are working in it.
Pierre is firmly opposed to killing workingmen and sets out to sneak back into France and stop the bombing. The police think that Pierre is returning to do the deed or at least to co-ordinate it. (They know something is about the happen, but not what or where.) Both the new leaders and old members of the Paris cell think that Pierre is in cahoots with the police. Pierre’s former protégé, Robert, has switched his loyalty to K and is the one designated to plant the bomb, so Pierre has to try to find and dissuade him
Though there is exploration of the psychology of those alienated from the dominant society, I think The Suspect qualifies as a thriller. There is more action than in many Simenon novels, including the Maigret police procedurals, and a proto-existentialist protagonist choosing life over violence while being suspected by both sides.
There are also scenes I find entertaining in which the Brussels policeman, Inspector Meulemans, has moved into the Chaves house with Chaves’s wife and often-crying (sick) baby, Pierrot. Simenon generally worked in some droll humor.
Fanatics willing to die while killing others (I hesitate to classify anyone in Simenon’s universe as “innocent”) are of renewed interest. I think of anarchist bombings as late-19th-century than between the world wars, and more focused on killing rulers (US presidents, the Hapsburg crown prince), but the book is a reminder that what become invitations to increase surveillance are recurrently made by those who believe a few explosions will change the world to their way of thinking (also see the recent Frankenstin in Baghdad).
I don’t think that The Suspect is as interesting as Dirty Snow, Simenon’s novel of collaborationists with Nazi occupiers, but prefer it to some of the recent of the NYR reprints I’ve read, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (with another Frenchman getting by in exile) or Monsieur Monde Vanishes (M. Monde going into exile without leaving the country).
©2010, 2019, Stephen O. Murray