chapter six of simenon’s the murderer—the phenomenology of the guilty conscience

André Gide famously considered Georges Simenon to be one of the finest novelists of the century, stating in 1939 that Simenon was "le plus grand peut-être et le plus vraiment romancier"—that is, "the greatest, the one who is most truly a novelist."

The following chapter of The Murderer—one of Simenon’s most relentless novels—illustrates how Simenon manufactures a pervasive sense of guilt and an undercurrent of menace through his characters’ stilted conversations, their erractic, sudden bodily movements, and above all the venues and strange surfaces of the physical world through which they move.

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SIX


Still only half awake, Neel had not had time to light the kitchen fire and was warming up the coffee on a gas ring. Kuperus had shaved with cold water. He reached the kitchen at the same time at Beetje, who had obviously just been wrenched from her sleep, too.


“I’ll have it here,” he said.


He sat down at a corner of the table. Neel gave him his coffee, then stood dreamily watching him. It was six o’clock in the morning. It was March now, but it was still cold.


“Will you wear your fur coat?” she asked.


“I think I’d better.”


The streets were deserted. Carrying a small suitcase, Kuperus walked briskly toward the station, accompanied only by the sound of his own steps. Not till he got near the station was he joined by others, obviously making for the same place.


Suddenly it occurred to him that this was the first time he’d taken the train since the event had happened. The month before, he hadn’t even thought of the Biological Association, and apart from the monthly meetings he hardly ever went on a train.


The station was only just beginning to come to life. At the ticket office he had to knock on the shutter for it to be opened.


“Amsterdam. First class.”


It was only as Kuperus was going, ticket in hand, toward the barrier that he realized that the collector might know something. Why hadn’t he thought about it before? He held out his ticket and stared hard at the fair young man with bad teeth who punched it.


Would he have remembered that, on the night in question, Kuperus had not handed in his ticket, and had not even gotten off at Sneek?


Under the doctor’s stare, a look of surprise came into the other’s pale blue eyes and a line formed on his forehead, perhaps with the effort to remember. But there was nothing unusual in his voice as he said:


“Good morning, Doctor!”


It was a matter of a few seconds, not long enough to draw any conclusions. Yet the fact remained that the man had looked surprised and frowned slightly.


Kuperus took his usual seat in his usual carriage, where he was sure of being undisturbed.


As the train started off, a ray of sunshine lit up the sky just behind the sails of a windmill. It was exactly like a picture postcard or a holiday poster.


The doctor leaned forward to look at the man who had punched his ticket. The latter was standing on the platform looking back at him.


The important thing was to know what he would do, or whether he’d do anything. Would he remember not having seen Kuperus that night? If he was in doubt, he might even hunt through the used tickets. Surely they would be kept somewhere or other.


And then, would he go to the police? Kuperus had been seen getting into the train at Staveren, and the stationmasters would doubtless be able to say that he hadn’t got off at Hindeloopen, Workum, or IJlst.


So everything depended on the chance ideas that might enter a certain railwayman’s head. If he said anything, they’d know that Kuperus had got out of the train between stations. And if they knew that…


Tell the boss to send me some dough. I mean it.


That had been the last sentence in Karl’s letter to Neel. Nothing more. No particulars.


No threats. Karl was down and out and asking for money: that was all. Kuperus had taken his address, having decided to go and see him when he went to Amsterdam.


At eight o’clock they got to Staveren, where the boat was waiting alongside. The sun was already warm, and Kuperus regretted having worn his fur coat. The Zuider Zee was a pale silky blue, its rippled surface dotted with the sails of two or three dozen fishing boats.


Everything happened as usual. The train whistled, the ship’s bell rang. The passengers made straight for the saloon, where they ordered tea. Kuperus went down with the others, but saw nobody he knew. He couldn’t help feeling, however, that the steward looked at him in a rather peculiar way, so he changed his mind and went back on deck, where he sat with his suitcase beside him, staring first at the receding church spire of Staveren, then, a quarter of an hour later, at the town of Enkhuizen, lit up by the morning sun.


After all, the man at Sneek might only have been surprised by the way the doctor had looked at him. Or perhaps he’d simply been curious to see Kuperus after reading about the case in the papers.


Kuperus was not planning to go to his sister-in-law’s. No, he was going to the Ritz. For years he’d looked in through the revolving doors of the hotel and longed to go in. But things were different now. In it was a world he had never dreamed of rubbing shoulders with, people whose luggage was plastered all over with the labels of grand hotels, and a bus belonging to one of the airlines was often drawn up outside.


Why shouldn’t he go to the Ritz, too? What was there to stop him? For that matter, what was there to stop him from taking a plane to Paris, to London, to Berlin?…


He went as usual, however, to have his glass of gin in the bar opposite the station. It reminded him of the fatal day.


The Ritz was at the end of the street, near the shop where he’d bought the revolver.  He walked along in the sunshine, with the hundred and one noises of the town around him, threading his way through the busy crowd. And as he did so he wondered what he had been thinking about on that other morning.


He had walked along, just as he was doing now. What had he been thinking about?


Everything had been decided. He knew exactly what he was going to do. But why?


It was curious. He couldn’t reconstitute the state of mind he’d been in that day.


He hadn’t been particularly jealous. The fact of the matter was that, since the event, he had hardly so much as thought of Alice.


He was only about a hundred yards from the Ritz when a truth began to dawn upon him, a truth that made him go hot all over. He couldn’t banish it. It stared him in the face. He hadn’t really bought the revolver to kill his wife, but to kill…Schutter!


As for his reasons…No! It was better not to think about it at all. Better anything than that…


“A single room, please. A nice one.”


“With bath?”


“Of course!”


“Here’s one at ten guilders…Number 246…”


He was relieved of his suitcase, and found himself with nothing to do until two o’clock. In the lounge were some English people reading their newspapers. A young woman who looked like an actress was playing with a little dog with a squashed-in face.

Kuperus decided to go and see Karl.


Karl’s street was narrow and dirty. And there weren’t many streets in Amsterdam that could be called dirty. It had Chinese shops and shabby secondhand dealers. Some were not really shops at all. In spite of the few faded packs of cigarettes in the window, they plied a trade that was only too easy to guess, and two or three times Kuperus looked hastily away from eyesthat were meant to be seductive.


When he got to Karl’s number, he found it was a barber’s. On the left was a low doorway leading to a dim staircase. On the second floor he found some children playing on the landing, who directed him to the floor above.


“Come in.”


He pushed the door and found himself in a room where the remains of a meal littered the table. Karl was still in bed, and beside him a woman’s hair straggled over the pillow.


“Oh, it’s you!”


Karl sat up in bed, ran his hand over his face, yawned, then shook his companion.


“Come on! Get up! You can go for a little walk on the landing.”


At that moment Kuperus almost envied him, almost envied him his sordid life and his indifference to it. The girl got out of bed. She was slim and dark, with small pear-shaped breasts. She looked for her slippers, cast a mistrustful glance at the visitor, threw a green coat over her nightgown, and went out. Karl didn’t bother to get up; he merely sat on the edge of the bed. A shaft of sunshine fell on his bare legs.


“It’s nice of you to bring the money. How’s Neel?”


“Quite all right, thank you.”


“I don’t need a lot. Fifty guilders would keep me going for a while.”


The young man scratched his head, then his feet. He seemed to find it difficult to wake up. The window was narrow. The girl’s dress lay on the floor, and some not very clean underclothes.


Kuperus did not answer. He hesitated, embarrassed, while the other looked at him quizzically, ironically.


“You’re a funny sort of fellow,” he said at last.


“Why?” asked the doctor.


“No particular reason…Anyway, it’s none of my business.”


Did that mean that he knew? If he didn’t know, would he have asked for the money with such assurance?


“I’d like to ask you a question,” said Kuperus after another pause. “What was it made you leave Germany?”


“An accident… a silly accident… I’d discovered a little servant who had all her savings hidden in her room…And one day I thought I’d help myself to them. I felt sure she’d hold her tongue, but instead of that she started hollering for all she was worth. I just had time to throw her on her bed…”


Kuperus listened, trembling with eagerness.


“… and put a pillow over her face.”


He got up with a scowl on his face, and looked for his toothbrush.


“I held it there till she quieted down, then bolted… It was two days later that I saw in the papers that she was dead… A pity! She was a nice girl… Much the same as Neel — one of those who seem to agree with everything you say, but you can never tell what’s going on in their heads…”


The scowl on his face had deepened. He passed a wet towel roughly over his face and put on his trousers, then turned to Kuperus.


“What about you?” he asked casually.


“What do you mean?”


“What have you done?”


“Me?”


Karl shrugged his shoulders.


“Just as you like!” he said. “As I said before, it’s none of my business… Besides, these things are not so funny that you want to go on talking about them… Did Neel send me any message?”


“No.”


“I expect she’ll write… She looks as soft as they make ’em… But I don’t mind betting she’d holler, too, just like the other…”


He opened the door. The girl was sitting in her green coat on the bottom step of the next flight.


“You can come in now,” he said.


And to Kuperus:


“Now you know where I live… I’ve taken this room by the month… Any time, if I can be of any use to you…”


And he held out a ten-guilder note to the girl saying:


“Get me some cigarettes.”


Kuperus didn’t want to go. Something held him back, some obscure need to see more of this man who had also killed someone.


“What’s the matter?” asked Karl.


“Nothing.”


“I daresay it’s upset you a bit — what I’ve just said… You needn’t worry. That’s the kind of thing one doesn’t want to do twice…”


And still Kuperus couldn’t make up his mind to go.


“Is there anything you want to say to me?” asked Karl. “Don’t forget I’m not pressing you to tell me anything…”


“No! I’ll go…”


It was high time he did! In another minute he’d have blurted out everything to this man.


“So long, Doctor… If there’s anything you can do for me, I’ll let you know…You can do the same.”


It felt strange, a minute or two later, to find himself once again in a broad busy street on which ordinary people were coming and going on foot, on bicycles, in streetcars or private cars. A street of shop windows, some piled high with cakes and pastries, others with dummies dressed in ready-made clothes.


There was only one thing that came out quite clearly from the conversation, and that was that Karl had killed a servant accidentally, just to save himself from being caught.


And Kuperus? In the eyes of the world, his case would be clearer still. They’d put it down to jealousy without a second’s hesitation. Jealousy! That, no doubt, was why they spoke of being sorry for him. Was it because they were sorry for him that they’d made him president of the club?


Anyhow, they were making a great mistake. Jealousy had nothing to do with it. Nor revenge either. He wasn’t angry at Alice, and never had been. He’d practically forgotten all about her until the other day when he’d picked up her photograph. Since then he’d picked it up often and… yes, and even regarded it with a subtle contentment. Moreover, more than once he’d picked up the bit of blue knitting and played with it in his hand.


There’d been a row about that. Seeing the wool, Neel had wanted to put it away, or perhaps even throw it away, but to her great surprise the doctor had suddenly flared up.


“You leave that where it is, do you hear?… I won’t have you changing anything in the room…”


Why should he bother about it?


As for Karl, he wasn’t ready to let anything get him down. He moved along in his filth and squalor, always finding some woman or other to wait on him, and, with a shrug of his shoulders, saying of his victim:


“A pity! She was a nice girl.”


He didn’t enjoy his lunch at all. That was a pity, too, since it was the first time he’d had a meal at the Ritz. There were a lot of people there, which may have helped to make him feel lonely, sitting at a table by himself. He opened a newspaper, but couldn’t concentrate on what he was reading, and he scarcely knew what he was eating.


At two o’clock he arrived at his meeting, and he had no sooner set foot in the spacious hall, with its Corinthian columns and huge blue and white flagstones, than he regretted having come.


It was no more than an impression, but it was enough to upset him. All his colleagues who were waiting there seemed to have their backs turned toward him or to be so deeply engaged in conversation that they didn’t notice him.


Of course they’d have real all about the affair in the papers, which had even published photographs of Kuperus himself. But was that sufficient reason?


He went up to one of them, whom he knew particularly well, and held out his hand. The other, who had been a student with him, took it rather awkwardly.


“Hello. How are you?”


“Pretty well, thanks,” answered Kuperus.


“You’re not looking any too good. You need a rest.”


“Yes… As a matter of fact, I’ve only dropped in to make my excuses. I’ve got an appointment in an hour…”


“Leave it to me. I’ll tell the chairman you couldn’t stay.”


It was the first time Kuperus had beaten a retreat. But there had really been too many of them, and the atmosphere of the place was somewhat intimidating at the best of times. Besides, he was thinking all the time about Karl.


Hadn’t that young man discovered the right way to live? He made no demands on life. He simply went his own way and did exactly what he liked.


As on that other afternoon, Kuperus went to the movie house. This time it was a musical comedy. All the characters, in elaborate costume, seemed to spend their whole lives singing and waltzing.


It was dark when he got out again, and the streets were crowded with people going home from work.


A happy throng! People rushing home hungry for their supper, after which they’d sleep like children.


What made him think suddenly of his first pocket knife? He had been eleven at the time. For months and months he had longed for a knife, but had never had enough money to buy one. Finally, he had sold two of his school-books to a secondhand dealer and then pretended he’d lost them.


With the proceeds, he’d got the knife. Only, of course, it had to be kept secret. If anyone had seen it, questions would have been asked. So he could only use it when alone. At first he’d even locked himself in the lavatory just to take it out of his pocket and have a look at it.


There was no reason why he should think of it now. But neither was there any reason for anything else. No reason why he should be walking all alone through the streets of Amsterdam, no reason to spend the night at the Ritz, no reason to take the train next day and then the boat at Enkhuisen and then the train again.


Back in Sneek he would stare once more at the man who took tickets. And be no wiser than he was now.


Around him was a town, a country, a whole world. And in all that world there was just one little corner that was his. An easy chair by a big tiled stove with brass fittings, a glow of rose-colored light shining down on a dining-room table, a servant who didn’t mind if she did…


His practice had been dwindling day by day. One day he had sat for a whole hour in his office waiting for a patient to turn up.


Then why didn’t they arrest him? If that’s what they really thought, why didn’t they come to the point?


He went back to the Ritz, but left again almost immediately. He started walking. It wasn’t that he wanted to walk. To tell the truth, he didn’t want to do anything. He had thought that the atmosphere of the big town would do him good. Instead, he was ill at ease there.


If there’d been a night train, he’d have taken it, and burst into the kitchen in the morning, surprising that little slut of a Beetje, and Neel, to whom he’d have given a pat on her behind.


Finding himself once again in front of the barber shop, he hesitated, then made up his mind and went upstairs and knocked on Karl’s door. It was the one opposite that opened, and an old man said:


“You’ll find him in the little bar five doors down the street.”


Kuperus had never been in a bar of that kind before. It was a step down from street level, and was barely furnished with four tables and a bar. The smell of gin was nauseating. In a corner, two sailors were drinking in silence. As for Karl, he was sitting at a table by himself, swilling down a sausage with a glass of beer.


“You again?… Is anything wrong?”


“I was bored.”


“That’s easily cured. Here! A double gin!”


Kuperus gulped it down in one go, while Karl calmly went on eating.


“And what’s boring you?”


“I don’t know.”


“Have another gin. I’ll stand you this one.”


He wiped his mouth, leaned back in his seat, and looked attentively at the doctor.


“Do you mind if I give you some advice?” he asked at last. “If you go on like this much longer, you’ll come to a bad end…”


“So that’s what you think, is it?”


“I don’t think anything… Your affairs are no business of mine.”


“Come on! Tell me what you really think.”


Kuperus was simply dying to talk about it. His tone was one of supplication. He had to talk. He couldn’t go on bottling it up indefinitely.


“Why should I think anything?”


“You know perfectly well.”


Karl had made a sign to the effect that the man behind the bar was listening to them. He tapped on the marble table with a coin and paid for the drinks.


“Let’s go.”


They went along a street where somebody was playing an accordion, and nearly bumped into a drunk. Women were loitering on the sidewalk, but there was no need for Karl to brush them aside; they made way for him themselves.


At the end of the street, they came to a canal. The quays were deserted and the only signs of life came from three lighted barges moored alongside each other. Kuperus had a burning feeling in his chest from the gin he had drunk, which had really been some crude and fiery spirit.


“Now what is it you have to tell me?”


“Do you sometimes think of — you know what I mean — that servant you… ?”


Karl looked into his eyes, as far as the darkness allowed him to.


“What of it?”


“That’s all!”


“Go on! You might just as well cough it up. Do you think I can’t see you’ve got something on your mind?”


It was too late to turn back, but Kuperus was suddenly frightened just the same. He wondered what on earth had prompted him to open the subject.


Wasn’t he putting himself at the mercy of this German? The latter knew he had money on him and could with the greatest of ease push him into the canal. Only, why do a thing like that, when blackmail was so much safer?


“You know the truth, don’t you?” stammered the doctor.


“So it was you, was it?”


It was said without a trace of surprise.


“I might have known it from the moment you called Neel into your room… It always has that effect on a man…”


“I don’t understand.”


“Never mind. It doesn’t matter… Now tell me what you want with me.”


“Nothing.”


Karl shrugged his shoulders in the darkness, then lit a cigarette. He hesitated a moment, wondering whether to go or stay. When at last he spoke, it was to say:


“I may as well tell you just what I think: the trouble with you is you’ve got some vicious kink in you!”


Some vicious kink in him!


He was on the boat. And once more he had succeeded in making everybody feel uncomfortable. This time he was traveling on a Wednesday — in other words, with the mayors of Staveren, Leeuwarden, and Sneek, with whom he had always played bridge during the crossing.


Kuperus knew perfectly well that they didn’t want to play with him, or even be seen in his company. But he also knew they’d find it very difficult to refuse. And when they got down to the saloon, they found him already installed at their usual table, shuffling a pack of cards.


What could they do but accept the situation? Even the steward was embarrassed. When the mayor of Staveren came to deal, he misdealt twice in a row. Each of them avoided saying anything except what was strictly necessary to the game.


A vicious kink! Did he really have something of the kind? Was he perhaps a pathological case? He played his hands, but all the time thought of other things, too. He thought of Karl, of Neel, and of Beetje bringing their coffee to them in bed in the mornings. He had insisted on her doing that.


For a while his mind wandered; then suddenly his thoughts were narrowed down to one — that everyone suspected him. No. It was more than that. Everyone was convinced he was the murderer. But they didn’t arrest him! They didn’t even question him! Perhaps they were waiting for some proof, like the ticket he hadn’t handed in. Perhaps they really were sorry for him and were ready to shut their eyes. Or it might have been merely to avoid a scandal.


That was more likely. To avoid a scandal. The Van Malderens had tried to persuade him to go away so that the whole affair could be hushed up and forgotten.


But he hadn’t fallen in with their little plan. On the contrary, by staying in Sneek he was forcing them every day to shake hands with a murderer. What did they think about that? Were they scared of him?


In any case, he wasn’t going away. If he’d ever thought of it, this journey to Amsterdam would have been enough to choke off the idea. He simply couldn’t face the thought of living anywhere else but in Sneek, in his own house, his own familiar little corner. He was longing to beback there among the familiar objects that had surrounded him for so many years.


“Three no trump.”


The mayor of Staveren went up on deck a few minutes before they arrived, and was the first down the gangway, so as not to be seen landing with Kuperus. As usual, the latter had his first-class compartment to himself.


It was dark, too, just as it had been two months before.


“Hindeloopen!”


And ten minutes later:


“Workum!”


Then:


“IJlst!”


Suddenly he went pale, because the train slowed down just as it had the other time. Perhaps it was the usual thing, only he’d never noticed it before. He got up from his seat and had his hand on the door handle.


But it didn’t stop after all, and a few minutes later he was handing in his ticket at Sneek. He looked into the man’s eyes, and the man looked into his as he said:


“Thank you, Doctor.”


Had he always said thank you like that? He couldn’t remember, and he wondered whether the words contained a threat.


He walked into the center of town with his suitcase in his hand, and paused outside the lighted windows of the Onder den Linden.


It was the one thing left to do to finish up the day. To go inside and oblige them all to shake hands with him, to sit among them and stare at them defiantly!


Van Malderen was there. He seemed embarrassed.


“Been to Amsterdam?”


“Yes.”


Billiard balls rolled across the brightly lighted tables. In a corner, four members of the club were playing bridge.


Van Malderen’s question, asked merely for form’s sake, and the half-hearted handshakes of the others — that was all he had of human contact with these people.
Even Old Willem wasn’t the same as before. When he brought him his glass of beer, he seemed to do so with some mental reservation.


To annoy them, Kuperus asked:


“What’s become of that charming girl?… What was her name? Oh, yes! Lina!”


He looked insistently at Loos, then at Van Malderen. Some of the others looked embarrassed or smirked.


“She’s gone.”


“Really? What, all alone?”


“No. With that Englishman who was here.”


An Englishman had been staying in town, to study the manufacture of Dutch cheese. At one of the tables Kuperus saw his friend the examining magistrate. He nodded to him but got no response. Perhaps the other hadn’t noticed.


It was as though there was a vacuum around him, a hollow emptiness in which the clack of the billiard balls echoed strangely and in which an occasional voice struck a false note. If he left, it would have been a relief to everybody, he knew very well, and for that very reason he made a point of staying, ordering another glass of beer and then a gin.


The gin reminded him of the previous evening, when he’d had a lot of it, so much that by the time he’d got back to the Ritz he’d been pretty thoroughly drunk, and he really couldn’t remember how he’d got to bed. He had awakened in a state of anxiety, expecting Karl to turn up at any moment with demands for money, backed by threats. Nobody had appeared, however, and he’d caught his usual train.


“How’s Jane?” he asked Van Malderen.


“Very well, thanks…”


Everyone was against him. Every way he turned, he came up against a blank wall. And in addition to all the people who suspected him, there was one who knew. For Kuperus was not forgetting the anonymous letter.


“An accident,” Karl had said, speaking of the girl he’d suffocated with a pillow.


But there wasn’t anything accidental about the shooting of Schutter and Alice, was there? Unless a kink could be called an accident! Could it?


What had made Karl say that about a vicious kink?


Vicious indeed! A man who’d lived forty-five years of unblemished respectability? He had never deceived his wife, except once, in Paris, and that had been a silly little affair of no importance. Even so, it had given him weeks of nightmares, because he was afraid he might have picked up some disease. The pocket knife had been dishonest, admittedly, but that could be dismissed as a misdeed of childhood.


Vicious indeed! To live fifteen years in the same house, and buy his wife new furniture when it wasn’t necessary at all? To go every evening to the Billiard Club, and have as his one and only ambition to become its president?


Vicious indeed! To get out of bed at night ten or twenty times a month to deliver babies?


It was enough to make one weep!


“A gin, Willem…”


Never mind if it was one too many. Never mind if the others looked at him reprovingly. He needed to know, and the gin helped him in the job of self-examination.


In Karl’s case, there was no room for doubt.


He had suffocated a girl accidentally, his intention being merely to stop her screaming.


But he? Why had he done what he had?… That still had to be found out.


His head was heavy as he stood up.


“Who’d like two hundred up with me?” he asked.


No one answered. His cheeks were flushed, and his eyes were glassy as he glared at them one after the other.


“I asked who’d like a game with me?” he insisted.


He could feel the gin mounting to his head, but imagined the others couldn’t see it. It was Franz Van Malderen who, as his oldest friend, finally took it upon himself to answer:


“Why don’t you go home to bed?”


And just as he could hardly remember undressing the night before in Amsterdam, he had, next morning, only the vaguest idea of how he’d left the café, where his departure had been followed by a long silence, then by a sudden burst of conversation.

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