Tony is married to the gently submissive Gisele and they have a young daughter Marianne. The childless Andrée is the wife of sickly Nicolas. Residents of the village of St Justine, Tony and Andrée are indulging in a lusty affair at the Hotel des Voyageurs in the nearest big town of Triant. Playing away from home, in other words, the lovers meet regularly, with the connivance of Tony’s brother, who is the owner of the hotel.
One hot August day, the frighteners are truly put on Tony in the Blue Room of the title, when through the window of the love nest he sees Nicolas approaching the building. Tony suspects that he has twigged the torrid affair, although this is never actually made clear in the ensuing tale.
Frightened at losing what he has, Tony runs for cover and resists resuming the liaison, as he tries to hide in the camouflage of domestic comfort. But this will not be possible, and the affair is fated to be the catalyst for murder.
No more should be divulged, as it will spoil this compelling 156-page story, first published as La Chambre Bleue in 1964. Simenon was marvellous at doing something he probably took very much for granted, simply conjuring a kind of blank, stolid feel for 1960s small town France.
Yet it is a strange imaginative landscape he is writing about too, one in which the provincials go almost catatonically about their business, just as they would in a film by Claude Chabrol, another great master of Gallic crime.
Tonally adroit, Simenon had the ability to mingle tenderness and dirty work with seeming ease, even in the same paragraph, as witnessed particularly by the touching cameos of Tony on a summer holiday with his wife and child.
Even the walk-on roles are mildly fascinating - why should the fellow lugging in the crates of `bottled lemonade' be necessary in the dramatis personae? Yet somehow he is part of the author's intention, the aim being to portray sneaky work snaking through the ordinary day as workmen go about their business.
Linda Coverdale's translation is fluent and clean, with a kind of symmetry to the narrative and economical aptness about the dialogue that reminded this writer of the best of Wodehouse. Of course, Wodehouse's lemonade carriers, or their equivalents, usually have an actual function in his typically intricate plots.
It is a barely tenable proposition to compare a tragedian and a comedian so vastly different in their concerns. Indeed it is perhaps far-fetched to draw any parallel between the work of a celebrated writer of farce in the English language with the work of a Belgian crime specialist whose tales have, moreover, been translated into English from the original French.
Nevertheless, Simenon's ability to tell a round, unvarnished tale - and his equally keen ear for dialogue - reminded this reviewer of his near contemporary, albeit one who played it all for laughs and was as far from Simenon's brand of sinister tristesse as a writer could be.