A penniless orphan arrives in a small fishing port and finds he is the sole heir to the town’s business empire. A rich young man marries a factory girl, then falls in love with his uncle’s widow. A double-locked safe contains the secrets of a town’s well-heeled families. A woman is arrested on suspicion of poisoning her husband. The bored wife of a wealthy businessman has an affair with the family doctor.
Any one of these plot lines would more than suffice for an entire Simenon novel, yet they are all part of the tapestry of Strange Inheritance. The cast of characters, too, is larger than most of Simenon’s books, but bigger is not necessarily better. Which is not to say that Strange Inheritance is a bad book – it isn’t – but while it is about 25% longer than the average roman dur, the extra length still isn’t sufficient to adequately explore the various narrative strands. It has the feel of a sprawling family saga, but not the stamina. It’s as if Simenon wanted to break free of his single character study formula, but not of his punishing eleven day writing schedule.
But there’s still plenty of good stuff here. Nineteen-year-old, Gilles Mauvoisin, son of travelling entertainers who have asphyxiated due to a faulty stove, arrives as a stowaway in the south-western port of La Rochelle, and it is through his eyes that we are introduced to the milieu and characters of the town: the gargantuan Raoul Babin holding court in a little bar, his whiskers stained into an ‘amber halo’ by the endless cigars he smokes; Jaja, the maternal, bulging café-owner, her stockings secured with red string, who plies everyone with cider and herrings. And there, the horse-faced Veuve Eloi in her ship-chandler’s shop crammed with anchors, rope and barrels of tar, with its ‘agreeable, complicated smell.’
But while Gilles seeks nothing more than a cheap room in the home town he has rarely seen, when it is discovered that he is the sole heir to his Uncle Octave’s fortune, he is quickly drawn into the byzantine world of the well-to-do Mauvoisin clan.
The best thing about Strange Inheritance is its vivid evocation of the sight and sounds of La Rochelle, a town which, according to Pierre Assouline, features in eighteen of Simenon’s works. We are presented not only with a portrait of the a bustling port, but also of a town in the grip of a cabal of wealthy families, yoked together by the information held in Uncle Octave’s safe. Some of the writing is brilliantly precise and shrewd:
[Monsieur Rinquet] was tall and flabby. More than anything else, he was dull. He belonged to . . . the race of men who derive their satisfaction in life – sometimes tinged with bitterness – from the consciousness of their own servitude to others.
And with that, Rinquet’s entire existence is nailed. Simenon’s novel’s are full of such ‘little men’, both subservient and resentful, their lives often disturbed by a chance event or sudden act of rebellion.
And there are fine set pieces. The scene of Gilles’ strained wedding party at a humble country inn seethes with awkwardness:
As a hotel the place had no pretensions at all, but its food had a reputation throughout the district. From the tap room came the voices of fishermen ordering their glasses of white wine. […] On the table were oysters, clams and shrimps, and a warm odour of mouclade drifted in from the kitchen. Yet, the forks were of cheap metal and the crockery chipped.
[…] This solemn day was really quite stupid and commonplace. In the sacristy, when in front of everybody [Gilles] had kissed his wife for the first time, he had hoped for some little quiver of her hand, a tremor of her lips, a sign of moisture in her eyes. Nothing of the sort!
This has all the pathos of a scene from Madame Bovary, and it makes you wish Simenon had placed nothing more than the disintegration of Gilles’ marriage under his microscope, but, as it is, the addition of the multiple storylines only serves to muddy the waters. Taken as whole, then, Strange Inheritance is a little unsatisfying – there’s too much going on, too many characters – but the pleasures to be had along the way make it well worth reading.
First published as Le voyageur de la Toussaint in 1941. Pan Books edition, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury, 1958.
 Pierre Assouline, Simenon: A Biography p.165
© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015