In The Mahé Circle, Simenon presents us with François Mahé, an overweight, thirty-five-year-old doctor, who lives with his wife, two children, and his mother, who still wakes him in the morning and tells him ‘when to change his underwear.’ The novel is mainly set on Porquerolles, a small island in the Mediterranean, where the Mahés are on vacation. Holidays occur quite frequently in Simenon. They offer an opportunity for the author to wrench his characters out of their familiar surroundings. But, perhaps for precisely this reason, nobody much enjoys themselves on a Simenon holiday and the Mahés are no different.
As the novel opens, Dr Mahé is fishing. He surreptitiously watches a local pulling fish after fish from the water, but Mahé cannot catch a thing. He observes the fish in the clear water below the boat as they approach his bait before turning away. Mahé suspects that by refusing to reveal their angling secrets, the locals are conspiring against him, but of course they are doing no such thing. What is clear, however, is that Mahé is a fish out of water. He does not fit in here. It is too hot; the food is different; his children get upset stomachs; he gets sunburn; his wife is miserable.
Mahé is entirely alienated. When his friend, Dr Péchade, is talking to him, he is unable to concentrate on what he is saying, and becomes fixated on his moving lips. ‘It was extraordinary, almost repulsive, to see the rolls of fat with pink inside, parting, closing, stretching, uncovering the little yellowish bones, that were his teeth.’
Later, when watching his ten-year-old daughter, he observes that:
One could already see some inborn vulgarity’ […] her skin was coarse-grained, her face too wide, her mouth without shape. He felt no disappointment. He didn’t feel anything. Everything around him left him quite cold.
The ‘circle’ of the novel’s title refers to Mahé’s friends and family. But Mahé does not perceive this circle as a benevolent, supportive network; rather it is more akin to a noose, slowly strangling him. In a dream, Mahé sees his family surround him, but suddenly they are not men and women, ‘but tombstones standing in a circle.’ It is this circle into which Mahé is locked.
Then, in Porquerolles, something changes. Mahé is called to attend the death of an impoverished woman, who has been squatting in abandoned military accommodation with her family. As Mahé surveys the dismal scene he catches sight of a little girl, eleven or twelve years old, in a red dress. At first, the incident appears to be of little significance, but over time the little girl develops into an obsession.
For the next three years, the family return to Porquerolles. Slowly, Mahé begins to fit in. He is greeted in local bars, learns how to fish, and joins the local men in a daily game of boules. But it is not for this that he returns. It is because of the girl in the red dress:
He wasn’t in love, it wasn’t that. […] No, it was an obsession, that was the word, a haunting obsession. And it had started that very first day, but faintly, insidiously, like those incurable illnesses that you only become aware of when it is too late for treatment.
The nature of Mahé’s obsession is enigmatic. It is not overtly sexual, although, in an unsavoury episode, he persuades his teenage nephew to force himself on the girl and then makes him describe what has occurred. Nor does he wish to ‘save’ her from deprivation. It is rather that she is something ‘other’: ‘the disavowal of his own life, of everything his life had been.’ Towards the end of the book, Mahé calls on the tiny apartment where the girl lives. He is invited in by her younger sister, but the girl, Elisabeth, is out working. We do not know what Mahé intends to do. As he waits, his attention is drawn to the quilt on the bed, ‘a white counterpane with a honeycomb weave, exactly like the one on his bed when he was twelve years old.’ And that in turn reminds him of the counterpane in the boarding house when he studied in Paris. In Simenon, through such associations, the past is always encroaching on the present, reminding his characters of where they have come from; crippling their ability to act decisively. Mahé lingers a while in the apartment; then, unsure or embarrassed of his reasons for being there, leaves.
Very little happens in The Mahé Circle. There is no tension. It is austere and unfathomable. Certainly it is not the work of a populist. There are few concessions to entertainment: the characters are unlikeable; the narrative is unexciting; the dénouement, when it comes, is enigmatic. It has more in common with Camus or even Robbe-Grillet than with Agatha Christie, to whom, on the basis of her prodigious generic output, Simenon is sometimes compared. It is less overtly philosophical than Camus, less experimental than Robbe-Grillet (whose first novel, The Erasers is a kind of deconstruction of a Maigret mystery), but in its portrayal of a character who is entirely indifferent to the people around him, it bears some resemblance to The Outsider, which had been published two years before. Indeed, in what seems an overt attempt to differentiate Mahé from Mersault, Simenon’s protagonist is deeply moved by his mother’s death. However, while Simenon was not given to pontificating about the philosophical content of his work, that does not mean it is shallow or superficial. Especially given that the novel is so lacking in narrative pleasures, it is perfectly possible to view it as a meditation on the struggle of the individual to exert control over his or her life. Mahé is a character whose life is not his own; his course in life has been entirely determined by others, primarily his mother. He realises that, ‘Until this point, one could almost say that other people had been living his life for him’:
He found that at thirty-five, here he was […] with a wife and two children and an existence all laid out for him, a fixed schedule worked out for every day of the week. He followed it […] because he could see no other solution, because he refused to admit there could be one, but he was floating inside this world that had been arranged for him as if in a suit of clothes that didn’t fit.
The real story of the novel is Mahé’s journey towards this realisation and what he does in order to attempt to exert a degree of free will over his fate.
Le Cercle Mahé, first published 1946. Penguin edition, 2015, translated by Siân Reynolds
 Curiously, Robbe-Grillet’s later novel The Voyeur (1955), in which a travelling salesman is unable to leave a small island on which a young girl has been killed, also bears some resemblance to The Mahé Case.