This is one of Georges Simenon’s many psychological thrillers, which he described as romans durs or ‘hard novels’. I’ve read two of his others – The Man from London and The Strangers in the House – and have enjoyed both, so was looking forward to reading this one. First published in 1965 as Le Train de Venise, it has just been reissued by Penguin Classics in a new English translation by Ros Schwartz.
The novel begins with Justin Calmar boarding a train in Venice to return to his home in Paris after a family holiday. His wife and two young children will follow in a few days’ time. During the journey, another passenger engages Justin in conversation and he finds himself agreeing to deliver a briefcase to an address in Lausanne when the train stops at the station there. However, things don’t go according to plan and Justin ends up returning to Paris with the case still in his possession. Unable to resist the temptation, he breaks the locks and looks inside…and what he finds there will change his life forever.
I won’t say too much more about the plot because I wouldn’t want to spoil the suspense of wondering what is inside the case and what Justin will decide to do with it. This is a very short book (176 pages in the paperback version) and for the first half, the tension builds and builds. It would have made a perfect Alfred Hitchcock film! It’s not a crime novel, however, so don’t go into it expecting one; the mystery is never fully explained or resolved, it ends abruptly and we are left with lots of unanswered questions. The events on the train are simply a starting point for Simenon to explore the psychological effects on Justin Calmar as he battles with nerves, guilt and paranoia, lying to his wife and his friends and finding that each lie leads to another.
The second half of the book isn’t quite as strong as the first and I do wish we’d had answers to at least some of those questions, but this is a fascinating and compelling story – my favourite by Georges Simenon so far.
Although I was slightly disappointed that only the first few pages of the book are actually set in Venice – the rest either on the train or in Paris – I wasn’t too disappointed because Paris is, of course, a great setting as well. And as Thyme for Tea and Readerbuzz are hosting their annual Paris in July event this month, the timing couldn’t be better!
Thanks to Penguin Classics for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.