It’s a cold, drab, unfriendly Paris. Mr. Hire is a lonely man, without family, but with a repetitive job, selling watercolor boxes over mail. He’s simply trying to make his way through life. He’s overweight, lives in a sodden flat in the suburbs, and his only joy is visits to a bathhouse of ill repute. And now he is suspected of having killed a prostitute.
As the novel progresses, we follow Mr. Hire from the outside. The narrator is not in the characters’ heads. All we read about are Mr. Hire’s and others’ movements, mimics and environments. Paris is a humming, busy city in the background, and Mr. Hire constantly excuses himself from its inhabitants, essentially from the city, to get from one place to the other. That the characters are not transparent is not a particularly outstanding aspect of the novel, but what cmopletes it and attests to Simenon’s mastery is that the action also happens on the surface. There are no secrets, no big revelations of hidden facts: We either see everything as it happens, or it is an established fact whose time it has come to be mentioned. These revelations are abrupt and unnerving. The maltreatment of Mr. Hire by those around him, for example, is exemplified vividly by the cops ripping a bandage from his face without permission. This scene, which happens rather early in the book, is exemplary of Simenon’s straightforward, hefty and very effective action-driven method of setting the mood.
The society Mr. Hire moves in is one of mistrust, distance and hypocrisy. The concierge mistreats her children, while professing genuine, but completely unfounded fear of a man of whom she has no knowledge - just because he doesn’t fit in. The detective keeping watch to catch a killer uses the opportunity to sexually abuse a young woman, even telling her that he has to make the best of his time, because the case will be closed soon. The commissioner who interrogates Mr. Hire holds against him his family past, and his being a Jew who hides his real name to avoid persecution - this, taken together with the general picture depicted of French society, form a harbinger of what’s going to happen to its Jewish population in less than a decade.
The moral level of the story is one you cannot miss, even though it is not thematized as explicitly as exclusion and social coldness. Mr. Hire is a shy, physically unattractive man who searches tenderness in settings that are considered unbecoming by others. He also makes it a habit to observe his neighbour across the courtyard, peeping on her when she comes back from work. His behavior contrasts with that of the detective who has a respectable job but sexually assaults a young woman. This is coincidentally the woman Mr. Hire is infatuated with and peeps on, and she also turns out to play a role later in the story, which places her in a position far more doubtful than Mr. Hire. The story might be taking place on the surface, but morality is a complex affair where one has to reserve judgement and take numerous looks. ???
One of the most striking sections of the book puts Mr. Hire in a completely different context, one in which he is somebody. Mr. Hire is a talented bowling player, regularly attending a parlor where he is watched and admired. His movements take on a different quality when he is approaching the lane; a certain elegance comes to him when he rolls the ball. He is not the clumsy, flabby man with “nothing but soft, flaccid matter, so much so that his movements were hard to make out” but an agile, swift man who moves “gracefully as a dancer” and commands respect. He is actually mistaken for a police commissioner due to his confidence, but also partly due to his own shyness, which he can still not shake off. This parlor is also the only place where he feels to be above the murder suspicion hanging on him, at one point even engaging the policeman tailing him.
Considering that Simenon refrains from describing thoughts and emotions, and rather faithfully if sparsely depicts time instead, one would think that a certain monotony would set in. Two things (tricks? tactics? “practices?) that Simenon does help to avoid such monotony. One is the unexpectedness with which certain details are revealed, already mentioned above. Simenon does not make an effort to change the pace of the narration, or make insinuations that some big break is about to happen. These moments happen as a matter of fact, as concrete components of the story. The other trick is Simenon’s joyful explication of how time passes. One example is where Mr. Hire sits in his flat, doing nothing, waiting for the woman across the courtyard to come back home and make herself visible (p. 21). Time is passing by the minute, by the hour, warmth is building up on his skin after a cold day, neighbours are going their daily lives, things repeat. This is most of life; you wait, and then things happen, and Simenon is great at balancing these two.
Once the first chapter sets the standard for how Mr. Hire is treated, there is no possibility of having delusions, as a reader, about how the story is going to end. We watch the slow and unavoidable framing, as Mr. Hire becomes the victim of fellow citizens’ malignancy and his own naive hopes of being loved and happy. With him, not only a human being perishes, but a family, the legacy of a “serious and deliberate” father and a loving mother, just as with any soul crushed by, well, everyone.