Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Book review: The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By - Georges Simenon


Having decided not to read the blurb on the back it took me a while to get into this story and brush aside my preconceptions. Based on the title I had expected the main character to have seen some hideous crime and either chosen to escape the consequences or perhaps had seen something happen as a commuter train chugged by.

Once I got past that idea and settled into what becomes a story of cat and mouse and a psychological battle for the protagonist Kees Popinga to stay ahead of the law.

There is a sense his luck will eventually run out but because the story is predominately told through his eyes you end up wondering if he can keep going and evade the police.

After all he has suffered a shock to the system that eradicates his comfort zone and removes any chance of continuing with his normal life. The next major events are overshadowed by that mental collapse and the sense that the most normal of men has become anything but.

By the end as he suffers misfortunes that cause him to run out of options you find yourself sympathising with his situation. The final moments also leave you pondering about what is insanity and whether that delivers Popinga an escape from facing the consequences in reality.

That seems to be the main takeaway for me around the idea of a mental collapse and examining what happens when a world is turned upside down and the boundaries of normal life, the nine to five and Sunday diners, are removed.

As usual with Simenon the writing flows easily and the sketches of Parisian cafes and boarding houses are delivered with an acute eye but a deft touch.

This isn't a Maigret story and if anything the Police are described at a distance for the vast majority of the story. But this has all the hallmarks of a study into caracter, the results of extreme pressure and the choices made as that mounts.