Dr. Hans Kuperus is well-respected in the small town of Sneek. His life is well-ordered, he has a seemingly happy marriage and lives prosperously in a well-appointed house. However, he has received a letter informing him of his wife's affair with a local dignitary. So, Kuperus buys a gun and kills his wife and her lover, returns home feeling liberated from his cuckolded status and takes his maid as his mistress. The townspeople's initial sympathy towards Kuperus gradually turns to suspicion and, finally, to outright hostility as they suspect Kuperus murdered both his wife and her lover after the bodies are discovered in the canal. However, Kuperus has covered his tracks well but is now beset with fear of discovery, particularly as the sender of the letter also knows of his wife's infidelity and may now know he is the murderer. But who sent the letter, and what do they intend to do with their knowledge?
Georges Simenon's 1937 psychological mystery still feels surprisingly fresh and modern due to the accuracy of its observations (human nature has not seemingly changed that much) and the economy of its prose style as neither a word is wasted nor a scene superfluous to the narrative. It's essentially a tale of small-town moral inquiry of the type frequently filmed by Claude Chabrol (e.g. Le Boucher, Juste Avant La Nuit), and is one where the murderer's identity and motives are clear from the start.
The source of tension and mystery are the external and, ultimately, internal forces that are beyond the control of Kuperus as the novel addresses issues of guilt, identity, personality and small-town hypocrisy where a watchful or disapproving look can be more devastating than an act of violence. The writing is crisply evocative of both place and character, and is particularly effective in describing the claustrophobic sense of the darkness gathering and closing in as a man who believed he has found freedom instead finds himself trapped in his own circle of Hell.
There's also some surprising humour too, albeit often of a dark variety, and also a strong sense of a satire on conformity and of a particular type of middle-class small-mindedness - that of the curtain-twitchers and suburban passive aggressive personalities who know just how to needle, cajole and threaten in covert fashion in a town where the appearance of respectability is everything. Effectively building sympathy for an unsympathetic character - a murderer, in fact - this is a highly recommended, short, sharp jab to the psyche by an author who knew how to twist the knife in, slowly and without recourse to flamboyant or florid prose.
AFTERWORD: Belgian writer Georges Simenon was a prolific author who wrote around two hundred novels and many short stories, with his most famous creation being detective Jules Maigret, who featured in films and a famous UK TV series. Many of Simenon's novels have been reprinted in the last few years, and second-hand copies are generally freely available on the internet, second-hand bookshops, charity shops and elsewhere. They seem particularly plentiful in the UK where they were extremely popular in the 1950s and 60s due to the Maigret TV series raising the author's profile.
My copy of this book was one of several I recently acquired in a local sewing shop whose elderly owner has acquired a Kindle and was selling off her collection cheaply (she seems to have bought many of them in various outlets of the late lamented Popular Book Centres which used to trade in London until the late 1980s as their stamp appears inside most of them). So, there is no excuse for not stocking up on Simenon, which is something I highly recommend as I can't wait to get started on the next one.