Simenon took an interesting approach to his novels to say the least. He would often start out by writing everything he knew about his main characters on the backs of envelopes. Simple things: where do they live, what do they do for a living, who is in their family. Case in point, Hector Loursat, the protagonist of The Strangers in the House. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Loursat is:
- An abandoned husband (his wife having left him for a lover 18 years ago)
- A father (and not a very good one to his only daughter)
- A slob (who walks about the house in his soiled smoking jacket)
- A drunk (who goes through several bottles of burgundy a day)
- And a recluse (who has not left the confines of his bedroom nee study in many years)
He is more a mole than a human being, burrowed into his hole never to be disturbed. When a gunshot is suddenly heard in his home at the beginning of the story, Loursat does not jump up, running from room to room in a panic. Instead, he sits there for a moment, wondering, pondering. Like a man woken from a deep slumber, Loursat finally gets up to find out exactly what happened. Simenon — in perfectly crafted prose, not an extra bit of fat or superfluous description — captures the moment of discovery when Loursat first hears the sound of a gunshot.
At first he thought of the crack of a whip, a common enough sound to hear in the early morning when the garbage-men went on their rounds.
But this noise hadn’t come from outside. Nor was it the crack of a whip. There was more weight in it than that, more percussion, so much so that he had felt a slight shock in his chest before his ears actually heard it.
As he looked up, listening, the expression on his face was one of slight annoyance at the intrusion. It might have been taken for anxiety, but it wasn’t that.
What was so impressive was the silence that followed. A silence more compact, more positive than any ordinary one, but which yet seemed full of strained vibrations.
He didn’t get up from his chair at once. He filled his glass, emptied it, put his cigarette back in his mouth, then heaved himself up and went over to the door, where he listened for a second before opening it.
That description of the silence is so taut and perfect that it carries you out of the room, taking you all the way upstairs to the mysterious location of the gun shot. You are no longer standing with Loursat. Instead you are in the room, hearing the echo of the gun, standing with all parties involved, caught up in that tense moment of aftershock, when everyone is still can’t believe what has just happened. Then Simenon takes you back downstairs, back to Loursat, to share his disbelief in the sound he just heard.
Loursat does make his way upstairs to discover that a strange man has been murdered in his home and his own daughter may be caught up in the affair. This moment is where Loursat begins to wake up. In the ensuing chapters, as Loursat tries to piece together the events of that fateful evening, we care less about who or who didn’t commit the crime and instead are more concerned with the protagonist’s return to life. Loursat dragged further into the case, ventures outside — horror of horrors — then starts talking to people, then begins to become a social being, even beginning to have his wine in a local bar. Along the way, he discovers that he didn’t know his daughter as well as he had thought. And he comes to see the effect of his soiled reclusiveness on the Loursat household.
Like Kees Popinga in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (one of Simenon’s best suspense novels), we see the story through the eyes of the central character. We live in Loursat’s head, at first as crowded and stuffy as his overheated lair. But as Loursat delves further in he investigation, that space is aired out (both the study and the brain) and the reader becomes increasingly caught up in his return to humanity. In some ways, the ensuing investigation and trial is very pedestrian, almost clichéd. The whodunit aspects of the novel are almost superfluous. Simenon’s superb ability to bring us into Loursat’s experience (as he did with Kees Popinga), drags the reader into the novel, and in the end, it is the trial of Loursat, the testing of his will, that makes the novel so interesting.