The Engagement

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

Although Georges Simenon (1903--1989) wrote nearly 200 novels, he is most famous for the 75 mysteries that star the sleuth Commissaire Jules Maigret. This is curious, because many Simenon fans don’t particularly care for the Maigret series. In fact, Simenon himself—like his English counterpart Graham Greene—distinguished between his commercial output and his more literary work, which he referred to as “les romans durs,” or “hard novels.”

Thanks to the NYRB Classics line, The Engagement—originally published in 1933—is the latest of these hard titles to be translated into English. Suspicion already runs high in a Paris tenement where the walls are thin enough that the churning of a coffee grinder can be heard down the hall. So when a prostitute is murdered in a nearby vacant lot, the building’s paranoia quotient spikes. Almost immediately, a shy, pudgy tenant named Mr. Hire becomes an irresistible scapegoat for his jittery neighbors, who assist the local police in building the case against him. Hire once did time for porn trafficking, and he now makes his living through a legal but shady postal scam. He is also innocent of the crime.

Published when Europe was between the wars, the novel depicts the impoverished City of Light as a moral vortex where truth isn’t as highly valued as survival. As with all of the hard novels, The Engagement is considerably more complex than most existential thrillers. Gripping, too—you’d have to scan the rest of the Simenon shelf to find a more engrossing beach read. — Benjamin Strong

By Georges Simenon . New York Review Books, $12.95 paperback.