Mr. Hire “was not fat. He was flabby. His volume was no greater than that of any ordinary man, but one sensed in him neither flesh nor bone, nothing but soft, flaccid matter, so soft and so flaccid that his movements were hard to make out.”
Mr. Hire lives alone, in a tiny apartment in a suburb of Paris. A young woman has been murdered nearby, her body found in a vacant lot. Mr. Hire’s concierge suspects that Mr. Hire may be the killer, and says as much to the detectives investigating the case. It seems she had glimpsed a blood-soaked towel in Mr. Hire’s apartment when she delivered his mail.
The police decide to place Mr. Hire under surveillance.
They learn little, certainly nothing that would connect him to the murder. Every weekday he takes a streetcar into Paris, then rides the Metro to Voltaire station. From there he walks to his place of business, which is “not quite a basement, not quite the ground floor. The courtyard was sunken, and the room in which Mr. Hire was working was several feet below ground level. It made for a comical effect, with Mr. Hire cut off at the waist by the sidewalk.”
To the reader it soon becomes evident that Mr. Hire is not the killer. But he’s no innocent, either. He’s done time for trafficking in pornography. The business he is now engaged in is a barely legal mail-order scam.
He is also a voyeur. Directly opposite the window of Mr. Hire’s apartment—less than 10 feet away, in fact—is the window to the apartment where the young woman who works in the dairy shop lives:
Mr. Hire didn’t move. In his apartment it was completely dark. He was standing with his forehead against the icy window, motionless except for his pupils, which darted back and forth, following his neighbor’s movements.
The girl’s name is Alice and she knows that Mr. Hire watches her. One night she pays him a visit. She warns him about the police, but by then he already knows he is a suspect. He shows Alice a cache of savings bonds he has and asks her to come away with him to Switzerland. The next day he sends her a note telling her to meet him at the train station. He even buys her an engagement ring—secondhand, of course.
Simenon (1903-1989) is best-known for his Inspector Maigret mysteries. But he also wrote what he called “romans dur—“hard novels,” unblinkingly realistic psychological studies. The Engagement, first published in 1933, is one of the earliest of these. There is nothing at all edifying about it, and it is a mark of Simenon’s artistry that he can devise so compelling a tale out of such unappealing material. There is, of course, his uncanny ability to render a scene palpable:
Outside, patches of pavement were already dry of rain, and the wind rustled in the trees overhead. From time to time, a market cart would rumble by, or the footsteps of a pedestrian could be heard echoing through the neighborhood streets.
Human beings, as portrayed in this novel, range narrowly from the merely ordinary and banal to the mean-spirited, bitter, and grasping. What makes it bearable to read about them is the sense that no grand statement is being attempted: This is just one group of people behaving in a particular way under certain specific circumstances. They represent only themselves, not humanity.
There is, however, a moral to be found in the deepening shadow cast by the narrative. When, at the end, that shadow comes to life, one realizes that this novel isn’t really about Mr. Hire at all. It is about the gestation of a creature far more dangerous than any Mr. Hire could ever be: the collective entity that Kierkegaard called “the crowd, which has no hands”—and no responsibility, either.