Rather like its hero, this taut little psychological thriller seems to have been dealt a bad hand by Fate. Simenon finished it in October 1939, a few days after World War II broke out, and it didn't get published until 1947. Eclipsed by his many other famous novels, it's virtually unknown. Notgettingenough, a staunch Simenon fan, had never heard of the book, and neither had my well-read Belgian friend Pierrette.
But it's a fine piece of work, and I strongly recommend it. Charles, a mild-mannered comptroller in his late 40s, is despised by his wife, his four teenage daughters and his appalling boss, who's also his brother-in-law. One day, he comes home as usual, but instead of sitting down to dinner goes up to the loft and locks himself in. People try to persuade him to be reasonable, but he refuses to answer. When they persist and threaten to break the door down, he warns them not to try; he's got a gun, and he'll use it. He just wants to be left alone.
Why has Charles done this uncharacteristic thing? You should read the book and find out - but if you can't be bothered, here's what you discover. Charles has discovered how his boss, Henri, made his money. The business originally belonged to Henri's partner, a dissipated and impractical young man who suffered from tuberculosis. Henri patronised a local house of ill-repute and started taking his partner there. The guy developed a taste for hookers. Henri and the brothel's madam devised a simple plan: they encouraged the guy's sex addiction, confident that this would weaken his already fragile health and eventually kill him. Everything worked perfectly, and when he died there was no way to implicate them. Henri took over the business and did well.
But Sophie, the madam, wants a larger cut and decides to blackmail Henri. She starts writing him letters, which are delivered to his office. Charles opens the first one by accident and immediately realizes what has happened. He doesn't tell anyone, and intercepts the following letters, which become increasingly threatening. At the same time, he begins writing anonymous letters himself, letting his boss know that someone has found out. Henri becomes more and more nervous. Finally, Sophie sends him a telegram plainly stating that she wants a lot of money or she'll tell. Henri has a mild heart attack. He finally understands what has been going on, and tells Charles that he'll give him anything he wants if he can just keep quiet. He also asks him to go to Paris and give Sophie the fifty thousand francs she's requested.
Charles emerges from his attic and makes the payoff; the creepy scene at the brothel is one of the highlights of the book. He comes back and refuses to tell Henri anything about what's happened, enjoying the power he has over him. But meanwhile, several other dramas have been playing out alongside the main story. Lulu, Henri's favorite daughter, has been humiliated by her unpleasant boyfriend. Ophelia-like, she becomes distracted and ends up hanging herself during her older sister's wedding.
At the end, Charles has nothing left but his revenge. He goes in to work every day and does his bookkeeping, relishing Henri's terrified inability to confront him. He has decided to kill him slowly and imperceptibly, just as Henri once killed his partner.
Why is revenge so important to people? It's rare for it to achieve anything, but once someone has decided to go down that path they are generally unable to stop. Simenon found an unusually good way to dramatise the theme.