A Man’s Head [La Tête d’un homme], 1931
My Friend Maigret [Mon ami Maigret], 1949
The Man on the Boulevard [Maigret et l’homme du banc], 1953
Account Unsettled [Crime impuni], 1954
A Man’s Head
A Man’s Head [La Tête d’un homme] is an early novel by Georges Simenon from 1931, but already the familiar tropes are in place: the unshowy workaholic detective, who rarely sees his wife, solving crimes by a blend of dogged determination and inspiration that doesn’t always make him popular with his superiors but gets the job done. Down these mean streets a man must go, but while Maigret may be a little tarnished he is not afraid, nor on the whole mean, even when the pressure threatens to beat him down, though he can get a little curt. He is an unsentimental man with a firm moral code, willing to bend the rules in pursuit of justice but always with an innate sense of compassion.
In this instance he is convinced that a prisoner who has been convicted of murder following Maigret’s own investigation is in fact innocent so he arranges for the man to escape. He wants to see where the trail leads, even at the risk of his own career should the escapee elude him. The events from this rash act unfold in a novella that evokes the life of interwar Montparnasse, its streets and bars mixing bohemians, lowlifes and lively expatriates, a melting pot that gave the city its distinctive personality in the period.
Simenon has a loyal band of followers, and it is easy to see why. Maigret comes to seem like an old friend, and the Paris depicted has a comfortable feel. A Man’s Head is an undemanding read, and the action moves quickly. The cinematic opening throws the reader into the action, showing the escape before filling in the preceding events. The focus on the psychopathology of the murderer is a departure from the usual emphasis of detective fiction in the period on whodunnit. Even when it is clear who was responsible for the crimes the reader is still kept guessing how they were achieved.
Dropped into the story is a reference to a real murder case, an unusual ploy for a writer of detective fiction, especially at this period. What is even more unusual is the source. Maigret is asked if he remembers reading about the ‘Taylor case’, a reference to the murder of film director William Desmond Taylor in 1922: ‘But I don’t suppose you do, as you probably don’t read the American papers.’ Simenon clearly read them because he then paraphrases a paragraph near the beginning of an article by Ed C. King, ‘I Know Who Killed Desmond Taylor’, which was published in True Detective Mysteries in 1930. Knowing who committed a crime, Maigret is being told, is not the same as proving it.
While there are pleasures to be had, the pace tends to obscure the weaknesses of Simenon’s style. The supporting characters are generally sketchy and there are some weaknesses in the plot, particularly a rather convenient suicide Maigret’s lengthy concluding explanation glides over. How he comes to realise who the murderer really is depends on a fluke of timing, and there is an unrealistic amount of following where those being tailed are oblivious of the fact. It’s enjoyable, but one suspects that had Simenon spent longer developing his stories they would have been even better.
(11 August 2014)
My Friend Maigret
We associate Maigret with rainy Parisian streets, and Simenon’s 1949 My Friend Maigret [Mon ami Maigret] starts off in conventional style, the rain beating down in an unseasonably cold spring. But the scene soon shifts to the sunny Mediterranean, the island of Porquerolles a couple of miles from the French coast off Toulon. So what drags Maigret so far from his usual beat? A lowlife, Marcellin, who had known him in the past in a professional capacity, had been murdered. What created the connection to Maigret was that shortly before his death Marcellin had been boasting in a somewhat exaggerated fashion about ‘my friend Maigret’ in a hotel bar. Friendship was putting it far too strongly, so it was a puzzle why he said it, and why anybody would want to kill him for it. Maigret goes south to try to find out the reason, and get away from the perpetual Parisian drizzle at the same time.
In contrast to the wet cold city, Porquerolles has a warm languid climate that Maigret finds has an adverse effect on him. It is an enervating atmosphere which makes thought harder than in a colder environment, a lazy place guaranteed to sap energy and ambition. The island is home to a mixed bunch of inhabitants, some permanent, others seasonal. There are contrasts between the native French population, the expats who help to keep the economy going, and the low-value Sunday day-trippers from the mainland who leave their empty bottles and sardine tins on the beach before heading back on the five o’clock ferry.
Among the semi-permanent residents is Mrs Wilcox, an aging English ex-socialite whose family will not allow her to return to her own country and whose yacht is anchored in the harbour. She is accompanied by her male factotum Philippe whom she bullies and who it transpires provides a wider range of services than one might at first assume from a member of staff. Also living on a boat is a young Dutch painter, along with his impressionable teenage girlfriend he had enticed away from her good family.
Permanently resident on the island is Justine, a brothel owner with a string of establishments on the mainland who does her business by telephone, her son Emile who is tied to her apron strings, and a retired British Indian Army major. Someone already known to Maigret is Ginette, a prostitute Maigret had known in Paris and had helped escape from Marcellin, now running one of Justine’s brothels and with an eye on marrying the semi-invalid Emile. And there is Charlot, living on the margin of legality with his gaming machines, who likes to think he has his finger on the pulse and is competing with Maigret to fathom the mystery of the murder. There does not seem to be much in the way of a motive for any of them to bump off someone who existed barely above the level of a beach bum.
Complicating Maigret’s mission is the Scotland Yard inspector, Pyke, who has been assigned to him for a ‘study tour’ to learn the famous detective’s methods. This crimps Maigret’s style somewhat as it turns out he has something of an inferiority complex where his enigmatic English colleague is concerned. Used to relying on intuition, he finds he becomes self-conscious when he is being observed, wondering all the time how he is being perceived. He is determined to share all information with Pyke to ensure it cannot be said that somehow he cheated in solving the crime, but he is constrained in his usual approach, which is to talk to people and get a feel for their characters, have his subordinates ferret out useful information, drink a great deal and let the lot marinade until the solution presents itself.
He tries a more conventional line but eventually reverts to his trusty intuition, aided by information provided by his office in Paris and by a particularly nosy postmistress who listens in on the telephone during calls. The solution is mainly arrived at by wandering about and chatting, which if truth be told is not that far from the way he operates in Paris. Once Maigret has uncovered the reason for the murder and identified the culprits involved in the events leading to it, a resolution involving some unsubtle psychological pressure of which he is sure the Englishman disapproves, he says Mr Pyke will be disappointed to learn that in fact he has no method. But of course he does have one, though not one that can be written down in a manual. Mr Pyke, ever discreet, seems to understand and thinks no less of him for it.
The plot we finally learn hinges on a Van Gogh painting which Mrs Wilcox had bought but was not as it seemed, along with some other pictures in her collection. As is often the case in the Maigret series, the actual mechanics of the crime are banal – in this case an attempt at extortion gone awry – which is rather like life. The book is less concerned with the mechanics of crime than it is Maigret’s mentation while out of his comfort zone. Simenon displays his usual weakness of providing sketchy subsidiary characters, but his strength in creating a vivid sense of place and atmosphere is fully on display.
Having lived for a couple of months on a Greek island in summer, I can empathise with the description of Porquerolles as a place of stasis where people laze their time away. It’s just too easy to put your feet up and let life flow over you in a place like that. Despite the rain and cold there is much to be said for the energy of more temperate climates, and it is no surprise to learn that the murderer is an energetic northern European.
(26 August 2016)
The Man on the Boulevard
Published in 1953, The Man on the Boulevard [Maigret et l’homme du banc] is a typical Simenon, evoking a drizzly autumnal Paris as Maigret plods around on the trail of a murderer. Louis Thouret, the murdered man, is found in an alley with a knife in his back and a surprised look on his face, but it soon emerges that his death involves more than one conundrum. To begin with, when his wife sees the body she is puzzled by the brown shoes and reddish tie he is wearing, not the attire he wears when he sets off each morning.
Chief Superintendent Maigret soon learns that far from going to work, the wholesalers where he was a storekeeper had closed down suddenly several years earlier. Since then he has existed without any visible means of support that the police can discern while leaving and coming back to his tawdry suburban house at the same times as before, and bringing home his wages as usual. How, when Louis seemed to spend most of his time sitting on benches, did he get his money, and where did he keep those brown shoes and tie his wife had never seen? Was his death due to the money, or was it something more general to do with the parallel lives he was leading unknown to his wife? The murder investigation becomes intertwined with uncovering these mysteries.
Nobody (apart from his family, who looked down on him as a failure) has a bad word to say about him, so it seems impossible his income would be the proceeds of crime – and yet how else could he have got it? Digging into the dead man’s personal life, Maigret and his team of inspectors locate his rented room, and learn that he had a close lady friend. It is clear why he would want some measure of independence from the cabal at home comprising his wife, her two sisters and her sisters’ husbands, and that the brown shoes would constitute a secret act of rebellion. Events take another turn when Maigret discovers that Louis’s daughter and her boyfriend knew he had lost his job, and were in effect blackmailing him to fund their proposed emigration to South America.
As is to be expected with Simenon it is a quick read with no fat, as Maigret’s precise approach to police work, allied to his intuition based on long experience, enables him to get to the nub of the matter. For most of its length the novel is engaging because the reader wonders how the mild-mannered Louis makes his money, even if it is likely that it is illicitly, and because the identity of the killer is elusive. It is a mark of how intriguing those aspects are that the ending is such a let-down, because it abruptly introduces two characters who have not previously been part of the investigation – Louis’s accomplice and the murderer – so would not have been possible for the reader to identify beforehand.
The money-making scheme is also a disappointment because it is unsophisticated, and it is astonishing that he and his accomplice could make such a large sum just from robbing tills, so much it is worth killing him to obtain the money. It is a rushed ending that undercuts the careful atmosphere Simenon has built up during the rest of the novel. The emphasis is on the characters, who by this stage he could doubtless conjure up with his eyes closed, but at the expense of the plot, which is unconvincing. The reader is left feeling that time spent making the details more credible would have resulted in a stronger conclusion.
(20 August 2015)
A non-Maigret story, Account Unsettled [Crime impuni], published in 1954, is divided neatly into two parts. The first begins in 1926 in Liège, a city which as it happens was Simenon’s birthplace. Madame Lange rents out rooms to students at the university. Her longest-serving boarder is Elie, a Jew from Vilna in Poland, who has lived in her house for three years.
He is an extremely talented mathematician from a very large and very poor family who has only been able to pursue his studies with assistance from a Jewish charity. He is now working on his doctorate, and spends most of his time in the kitchen where it is warm. Introverted and withdrawn, physically unattractive, he does not make friends and has no social life. He has grown accustomed to the house and particularly to his landlady’s sickly daughter, Louise. He has never spoken to her about his feelings, which he does not fully comprehend himself. Even so, he believes that he could comfortably remain where he is, with the two women and the other boarders, for the rest of his life.
Unfortunately his composure is shattered by the arrival of a rich outgoing Romanian student, Michel Zograffi, who quickly becomes the centre of the household because unlike the others he pays for full board and occupies the best room. Speaking Polish but no French, Elie translates for him but senses Michel’s disdain after Elie rebuffs an offer of friendship. Perceptively, Madame Lange accuses him of being jealous. Michel is outgoing, but is revealed to have a dark side when Madame Lange discovers a number of photographs of naked women in provocative poses, taken by himself, in his room. Elie becomes obsessed with Michel, who is everything he is not, and one day sneaks into his room to poke around his things. Unfortunately he is caught by Michel.
After seeing them by chance standing in a doorway on a dark street, Elie realises that Michel has seduced Louise and discovers they are having regular afternoon sex during Madame Lange’s absence. He takes to watching them through the keyhole, but it becomes apparent that Michel is aware he is doing so. Elie is crushed by Michel’s actions, by his contempt, and the stark differences in their lives, all of which combine to destroy his equilibrium, and he decides that the interloper has to be punished. Madame Lange’s husband was killed in the war, but she still has his revolver. Elie steals it and one night waylays Michel, shooting him in the face. Realising he has not killed Michel outright but not able to fire again, Elie flees to Hamburg.
The second part of the story jumps forward 26 years, with Elie married and living quietly in Carlson City, Arizona, replacing the cold of Europe with the stifling heat of the American west. Having abandoned mathematics he is employed as a hotel receptionist in a mining town and has become enormously fat. The fate of the mine and hotel hangs in the balance as their owner is going through a messy and expensive divorce, and an underground lake has been discovered at the mine that may make its future exploitation unviable. Hotel and mine are finally sold, and when the purchaser checks in it is none other than Michel, now a successful businessman. He had survived the shooting but had had to have reconstructive surgery which made the lower half of his face immobile, and his expression inscrutable.
Elie is disconcerted to see his victim, though in his heart he had known that fate would eventually catch up with him. But he does not know what Michel will do and is in an agony of suspense. Yet Michel, after establishing some basic facts about him, simply ignores him and rejects Elie’s attempt to communicate. Elie goes through permutations of possible reasons for Michel’s behaviour, only one of which is the likeliest: he has decided that Elie’s mundane life and lost promise represent a greater punishment than any he could inflict. Elie is frustrated by Michel’s refusal to offer closure and is terrified he will lose his job and be sent away, because he has nowhere to go. Having failed to kill Michel, he now fails to provoke a response. Feeling he has little to lose and suspecting that Michel may be leaving Carson City, removing his scope for action, he impulsively takes a gun kept in hotel reception and finishes what he started almost three decades before.
This is less a crime story than it is an exploration of Elie’s interior life. His insecurities, it is suggested, stem from his unloved childhood in Poland, which is contrasted with Michel’s warm relationship with his mother. Where Michel’s life was one of affluence, Elie’s was wretchedly poverty-stricken. His mother had produced so many offspring she could hardly tell them apart, the families in the area so lacking in resources that children had to go barefoot in the snow and siblings fought over a pair of boots. It was the cold and hunger that made Elie seek out a hot place where he could eat to excess. His personality has not changed, though, and the climate has not warmed him; when he thinks he might have to leave the hotel, he understands his wife would not go with him as she feels more for her sisters than she does for him. For all his intelligence, he cannot read people. He goes round in circles trying to deduce Michel’s attitude until the simplest way out of the morass of contradictory feelings is just to shoot him again. That way he can be sure Michel is paying him some attention.
(5 September 2016)