Various novels by Georges Simenon

A Mans head cvr

The Carter of La Providence [Le Charretier de la Providence], 1931
A Man’s Head [La Tête d’un homme], 1931
The Bar on the Seine [La Guinguette à deux sous], 1932
My Friend Maigret [Mon ami Maigret], 1949
Maigret’s Memoirs [Les Mémoires de Maigret], 1950
Inquest on Bouvet [L’Enterrement de Monsieur Bouvet], 1952
The Man on the Boulevard [Maigret et l’homme du banc], 1953
Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife [Maigret et la Grande Perche], 1953
Account Unsettled [Crime impuni], 1954
Maigret’s Revolver [Le Revolver de Maigret], 1954
Maigret and the Headless Corpse [Maigret et le Corps sans Tête], 1955
Maigret and the Saturday Caller [Maigret et le Client du Samedi], 1962



The Carter of La Providence

Published in 1931, Georges Simenon’s The Carter of La Providence is the second in the Maigret series, in which we see our detective working outside the busy Parisian metropolis investigating a murder on the side of a canal at its intersection with the river Marne.  The novel opens with the terseness of a police report, crisply recounting the facts: the body of a modish woman is found strangled in a stable and Detective Chief Inspector Maigret is assigned to the case.

He establishes that the body is that of Mary Lampson, and her husband is an Englishman, Sir Walter Lampson, a heavy drinking ex-India hand.  Sir Walter is en route to the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles in his fine vessel the Southern Cross (the island, where Simenon himself lived for a while, is the setting for My Friend Maigret a couple of decades later; Sir Walter is on Porquerolles during that investigation but is not involved).  Apart from Mary the group comprises his mistress Madame Negretti, his general factotum Willy, who we learn had been having an affair with Mary, and Russian deckhand Vladimir.

Sir Walter’s behaviour on learning of Mary’s death is strangely disengaged and Maigret finds interviewing him a frustrating experience.  Mary had disappeared two days before her death but her husband had not reported her missing, as he claimed such behaviour was not unusual.  The relationships on board are certainly unconventional, with bed-hopping in a confined space, not to mention the occasional presence of party girls.  The waters of the case become even murkier when a couple of days later Willy is found dead, also strangled, in the canal.

Then Maigret finds a connection between the Southern Cross and the working barge La Providence which had been following it, in particular the employee Jean, the carrier, who handles the horses by which the vessel is powered.  Finding the solution to the murder entails digging into Mary’s past and establishing a link to Jean, two individuals who seemed to have nothing in common.  Maigret at this stage in his career is obviously fit because his investigation as he puts the pieces together entails much pedalling along the muddy towpath for prodigious distances.  He even turns drinks down!  In later books it is difficult to imagine him exercising to that extent without having a coronary.

Simenon composes a picture of a transient community of bargees always in a hurry to reach the next lock, working hard all day for small reward, and the shore-based services, notably the sale of alcohol, on which they depend.  He evokes a lost time when the canals and rivers rather than motorways were the main arterial routes for goods, and were clogged with horse-drawn barges carrying cargo rather than by holidaymakers.  The geography and atmosphere feel authentic, and you can imagine it being the sort of place where it is always damp and often raining.

Incidentally the book contains a subtle indictment of the French penal colonies in French Guiana (memorably evoked in Henri Charrière’s novel Papillon).  A medical doctor convicted of murder, Jean after being imprisoned there has become more a shuffling creature than a man, preferring the company of horses to that of other humans.  Mary had been his wife but had reneged on her promise to follow him and had later married Sir Walter instead.  Her abandonment initiated a downward spiral, but the French system facilitated his degradation.

The biggest puzzle is why (and this is a massive spoiler) the title given to the novel by Simenon, and used in this edition, actually refers directly to the murderer.  This must be unique in detective fiction.  Other translations have used more oblique titles: Lock 14 and Maigret Meets a Milord.  They are not entirely satisfactory – there is no evidence that Colonel Lampson has blue blood despite his patrician ways – but at least they do not focus the reader’s attention on Jean.  As Simenon’s cavalier title suggests, this is not a classic whodunit; the emphasis is on depicting the sheer slog rather than judiciously sprinkling clues in such a way that it allows the reader to deduce the guilty party before the denouement if sharp enough or, if not able to do so, to admire the ingenuity of the author in constructing an elegantly baffling narrative.

(28 March 2017)


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)


The Bar on the Seine

Georges Simenon was adept at conjuring up a Manichean universe in which light and dark coexisted.  The opening sentence of his 1932 novel The Bar on the Seine [La Guinguette à deux sous], evokes up a beautiful though oppressive summer day in Paris:

‘A radiant late afternoon. The sunshine almost as thick as syrup in the quiet streets of the Left Bank. And everything – the people’s faces, the countless familiar sounds of the street – exuded a joy to be alive.

‘There are days like this, when ordinary life seems heightened, when the people walking down the street, the trams and cars all seem to exist in a fairy tale.’

But this is no fairy tale.  Maigret is on his way to visit a condemned prisoner, Jean Lenoir, whose appeal has been rejected and who is to be executed the following morning.  One expects Lenoir to be reprieved and play a major role in the plot, but he does go to the guillotine, though not before he alludes in vague terms to a murder which occurred six years before and remains unsolved.  He and a friend had been out late one night when they saw a body being carried from a house into a car, and then dumped in the Canal Saint-Martin.  They had taken the opportunity for blackmail until their victim did the obvious and moved.

Recently, however, Lenoir had seen the man in a bar, the Guinguette à Deux Sous.  Frustratingly Lenoir refuses to say more, as even with his life drawing to a close he will not be a stool pigeon.  Armed only with this unpromising piece of information and a reference to a bar nobody seems to have heard of, there things might have stood, except for the banal act of buying a new hat and by sheer chance overhearing a fellow customer refer to the Guinguette à Deux Sous.

The bar is a small ramshackle affair on the banks of the river near a village outside the city called Morsang-sur-Seine, the scene of regular Sunday get-togethers by a Parisian crowd who shed their bourgeois habits, turning bohemian for one day a week, and mess about in boats, fish, drink, and generally party to the strains of a mechanical piano operated by means of the insertion of two sous.  That seems a likely place for Maigret to begin his scrutiny of likely suspects.

Hence he sets about some participant observation as he seeks to understand the individuals and their relationships.  If it is a surprise he learns the whereabouts of the bar with so little effort, it is even more of a surprise to find him on the scene when one of the group, Feinstein, is murdered, this one by a clear-cut assailant who is still holding the gun.  He is Basso, who happens to be Feinstein’s wife Mado’s lover.  Is it a crime passionnel, or something deeper?  Maigret loses the chance to ask when Basso goes on the run.

During his investigation Maigret learns that the murdered man six years earlier was a Jewish moneylender killed for financial reasons, and that Feinstein’s business had severe cash flow problems for which he shamelessly tapped his wife’s lovers to cover his shortfalls.  At the same time Maigret becomes the regular companion of another in the Sunday crowd, a high-functioning English alcoholic, James, with whom Maigret gets into the habit of drinking Pernods in the late afternoons.   Maigret eventually realises why he and James had come together on such a regular basis to drink in each other’s company: James sought peace, but that is not the whole story, as Maigret sought to assuage his loneliness even as he berated himself for wasting time.

While Maigret doggedly pursues justice, he is under pressure from his wife, already on vacation in Alsace at her sister’s, to join her.  Of course, while he is naturally torn in his duties, professional and marital, the professional wins out, as his wife always knows it will.  Her solicitude towards him is contrasted with both promiscuous Mado and James’s wife, with whom he has nothing in common, the pair leading parallel lives.  For his part, once the job is finished Maigret can get on the train to Alsace with an easy mind, where he revels in the prospect of wearing the yellow wooden clogs his wife has bought him as a gift.  Simenon can surprise the reader with such small details: who would imagine conservative Maigret wearing yellow clogs?  We started in hot stuffy Paris, plumbed the darkness, and emerge into the sunlight where everything ‘looked as fresh as if it had been scrubbed clean every morning’.

(18 August 2017)


My Friend Maigret

We tend to 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 – an attempt at extortion gone awry – which is rather like life.  The book is more concerned with 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 vigour of more temperate climates, and it is no surprise to learn that the murderer is an energetic northern European.

(26 August 2016)


Maigret’s Memoirs

Maigret’s Memoirs lets us hear for a change what Jules Maigret has to say about his life and career direct, rather than through the pen of Georges Simenon.  Or that is the conceit.  The narrative falls into that category of books which assume an author’s character is real (a strategy particularly familiar from the Sherlock Holmes pastiches in which Watson is the author and Conan Doyle a literary agent).  Thus those wishing to read a straight detective story are going to be disappointed.  Maigret tells us his version of his career, and goes to pains to show where the writer Simenon, in using his life as source material, got things wrong, not just details of cases but the entire chronology.

Naturally as Maigret isn’t a trained writer but is merely looking back from the vantage point of his retirement in the country, the result isn’t as polished as it would be from the pen of the facile Simenon.  Rather it is full of discursions and byways, but that is part of its charm.  He wants us to see behind his biographer’s semi-fictional treatments to understand what makes a policeman: the dedication, the broad experience of all its areas of operation, the attention to psychology; in short, a career as vocation.  He is also at pains to stress that his attitude to criminals is always dispassionate, even sympathetic, as they have so much in common – more than the police do with many members of the bourgeoisie, whom Maigret berates for their hypocrisy, wanting special treatment for their own peccadilloes while displaying contempt for the more ‘honest’ criminal behaviour of the underclass.

This is valuable background to understanding Maigret’s development, showing us his family background, his rural origins, the early loss of his mother and his distant relationship with his estate manager father, how he was brought up in Nantes by his aunt and uncle, and how he met his wife.  We learn that he did not always intend to join the police, but began medical studies which he abandoned, and fell into the police by accident thanks to a neighbour who was a senior detective.  In 1927 or 1928 he met Simenon, then known simply as Sim, the full name apparently being adopted as an affectation (actually G Sim was one of Simenon’s pseudonyms).  Simenon, a rather self-important writer of hack potboilers, had arrived at police HQ wanting to shadow a detective and study his psychology, and had been assigned to Maigret.

Simenon informed Maigret that he wished to write ‘semi-literary’ fiction, and this ambition became reality when he began to chronicle Maigret’s cases, much to the amusement of Maigret’s colleagues (and to Simenon’s readers at the wry description of the much-loved novels as ‘semi-literary’).  However, Simenon did make Maigret famous, while often playing fast and loose, either through carelessness or for aesthetic effect, with the actual details.  Thus Maigret has the opportunity, thanks to Simenon’s publisher, and with nudges from Mme Maigret (Louise) to set the record straight and give his side of the story.  We learn that the Maigrets and Simenons are still firm friends all those years later, though there is no mention of Simenon sharing his royalties with the source of a considerable part of his income.  One omission from Maigret’s account is how he spent the years of occupation.  Presumably he wasn’t a collaborator, but it seems odd that such a significant event is not discussed.

The book is a curiosity, but will be disappointing to those expecting a straight police procedural.  There is a debate between Simenon and Maigret about the unvarnished truth being unconvincing (not to mention dull, full as it is of paperwork) compared to the truth as manipulated to make it seem more real than the reality, and more interesting – Simenon’s justification for his method.  Maigret is rightly irritated that Simenon has sometimes been cavalier with the facts; but on the other hand Simenon was aware of the cultural impact of his creation, which even by the time of writing had jumped into other media.  His approach, for all the occasional sloppiness of detail which so annoyed Maigret, had something significant going for it.  It is the difference between a police report and a highly readable, if ‘semi-literary’, novella.

(29 October 2017)


Inquest on Bouvet

It’s a beautiful morning in August near Notre Dame in Paris.  An elderly man is browsing cheap colour prints at a booth next to the Seine when he suddenly drops dead, scattering the prints around him as he falls.  An American student on his travels happens to be taking photographs with a Leica and snaps the fallen gentleman as he lies on the pavement.

The dead man, M. Bouvet, is well known to the vendors along the embankment and he is carried back to the room he had occupied nearby for many years, on the third floor of an apartment block in the Quai de la Tournelle.  M. Bouvet lived alone and as far as anybody is concerned he has no family and never spoke about his past.

That would normally have been the end of the matter had not the student managed to sell the photograph to a newspaper, which puts it on the front page of its evening edition.  Madame Jeanne, the building’s concierge wants nothing more than for her late tenant to lie in his room before receiving a decent burial.  Unfortunately for her, the plan comes unstuck.   A number of people recognise the man in the photo and a complicated life is gradually revealed.  The detectives at the Quai des Orfèvres are short-handed in the holiday season but they are obliged to investigate as the mysteries about the late M. Bouvet increase.

Thus an American woman turns up who says that the dead man’s name was not Bouvet at all, rather he was her husband Samuel Marsh, an American who ran a gold mine in the Congo until he suddenly disappeared, leaving her to conduct a lengthy legal battle to obtain his share from the mining company.  Mrs Marsh’s estranged daughter and her husband also arrive, hoping to benefit from the situation.

Then Bouvet/Marsh’s erstwhile business partner with whom he had worked in the Congo arrives to tell the police that actually Mr Marsh’s credentials were false too and he has no idea who Marsh really was.  Next to emerge is a Mrs Lair, tracked down by the doggedly determined Inspector Beaupère, who has been assigned to the case.  She is Bouvet/Marsh’s younger sister, and she is able to confirm his identity by means of a distinctive scar on his leg, caused by falling out of a tree in childhood.  It is established that he was really Gaston Lamblot, from a bourgeois family in Roubaix which ran a wool business.  He disappeared when a student and his sister had not heard from or of him since.

During all this the dead man’s room is searched at night by an unidentified intruder, and a large number of gold coins that had been in his mattress are exposed but left untouched.  An old tramp hanging round outside the apartment block, known as the Professor, suggests that Bouvet was possibly on the point of making yet another flight, to adopt a transient lifestyle.

Thanks to the police’s records they discover his prints were on a knife used in a murder in 1897, at the time he had disappeared from Paris.  Beaupère finds an elderly woman, Mme Blanche, whom Lamblot had pimped while they lived a demi-monde existence among radicals in the city.  After the murder they had left town and ended up in Antwerp.  There Lamblot had abandoned Mme Blanche and disappeared.

If that wasn’t enough twists in M. Lamblot’s colourful career, Madame Jeanne spots a man outside the apartment building whom she recognises as a ‘Boche’, one of several men from the occupying forces who had search Bouvet’s room during the war.  Bouvet himself had fled to the unoccupied zone as soon as the Germans had arrived and had spent the war years working on a farm, returning only after the liberation.  The ‘Boche’ turns out to be an intelligence officer, O’Brien, who had been working undercover for the allies.

Bouvet, it transpires, had been the highest paid allied informer during the Great War under the codename Agent Corsico, passing on German secrets from their embassy in Madrid, where he had worked as a valet and fixer.  O’Brien had actually come to warn him in 1940 that the Germans were out for revenge, and had burgled the room after Bouvet’s death to make sure no incriminating documents were there.  Mask after mask has been pulled from this man with multiple identities, until now the full history of Bouvet/Marsh/ Lamblot’s career is laid bare.

So with everything revealed, Madame Jeanne, burdened with a useless alcoholic husband and whose attachment to Bouvet seems surprisingly strong, can have her wish granted: M. Bouvet’s body is returned to the Quai de la Tournelle, from where the quiet man with the remarkable past starts on his final journey, accompanied by numerous people who had never expected to see him again, and whom he would have been surprised to find present at his send-off.  Bouvet excites more loyalty in others than he was ever capable of demonstrating himself.

This is effectively a Maigret without Maigret, but sharing the same universe: a major character involved in the investigation is Lucas, one of Maigret’s main lieutenants.  It is beautifully paced as the revelations emerge piecemeal while Paris bakes in the summer sun.  Bouvet had the advantage of living at a time when it was easier to reinvent one’s life and harder to check someone’s past, and if it hadn’t been for the student with the Leica, the only puzzle would have been where the gold coins came from when they were eventually found.  In the event, the elusive Bouvet, who never wanted to be pinned down in life, has finally been pinned down in death.

(5 December 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 perplexed by the brown shoes and reddish tie he has on, which is 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)


Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife

A possible murder has been committed, but Maigret has to rely on the word of a safe cracker, ‘Sad Freddie’, who claims he saw a body late at night, covered in blood and holding a telephone, in a house he had broken into.  Freddie had once been an employee of a safe company, but in his second career opens them in the expectations of a big score that somehow never materialises.  A corpse isn’t something he had expected to stumble across in the course of his criminal activities.

Maigret cannot talk to Freddie about this alleged murder because he has taken fright and disappeared.  Instead the tale is recounted at second hand by the man’s ex-prostitute wife Ernestine, someone Maigret had had a difficult encounter with when as young officer he had investigated a petty theft.  Freddie had phoned Ernestine in a panic before taking a train for parts unknown, having left his incriminating bag of tools at the scene.  She wants the matter cleared up because she is worried Freddie will be convicted and guillotined for a crime he did not commit.

Yet M. Serre and his mother, who live in the large house where the deed was said to have taken place, deny all knowledge not only of a murder but also of a break-in.   On the other hand they say that Serre’s Dutch second wife left the house to return to Amsterdam, and such certainly was her intention as her letters to a friend reveal, but she has vanished too.

Whom can Maigret believe, and where is the evidence that a murder has actually taken place?  It’s high summer and the weather is hot, not the best conditions to exercise cool judgement, but it is the holidays, and while the case looks unpromising, Maigret decides he might as well look into it.  He finds that the more questions he asks, the more the Serres’ story seems not to add up, but there is nothing conclusive.

In his usual way Maigret pieces the case together through a mixture of routine procedure, an understanding of psychology allied to deep experience, lengthy interrogations designed to wear down a suspect, and flashes of intuition that enable him to dig beneath the surface.  He is not afraid to try blind alleys on a hunch to see what may turn up.  Gradually patterns emerge that cast a different light on matters and overturn his initial assumptions.

It is striking on this showing how much money the police are willing to spend on an investigation with little to support it as Maigret authorises huge quantities of man-hours, not least an exhaustive search of the Serres’ house with no expectation of finding something incriminating.  Another noticeable aspect is the amount of alcohol Maigret downs as he pursues his inquiries.  He is always fond of a drink as he works (the words ‘not while on duty’ alien to his vocabulary) but here his consumption is so heroic you start to wonder if he is a high-functioning alcoholic.

Sometimes with Simenon you feel there is a longer story constrained by his standard word-count, but here the story feels actually stretched to fill the 160-odd pages.  There is plenty of chat, often going round in circles, as Maigret feels his way through a series of doubts to certainty that the younger Madame Serre was killed, and perhaps not her alone, and then finds the proof to back his hypothesis.  It is a neat scenario, but while the complexities of M. Serre’s and his mother’s personalities are sketched in with great economy, much of the story devolves on a blunt battle of wills between the two men as they sit across a table from each other,  rather than on clever plotting.

Mme Maigret is a saint, putting up with her husband’s lengthy absences without complaint, pleased to find herself in his office when dragged there late in the evening as Maigret follows up another lead.  He spends so little time at home I started to wonder if she followed the common French practice for married women and took a lover to fill the empty hours.  For all his professional acumen, there is no guarantee that the Chief Inspector would have cottoned on.

(27 November 2016)


Account Unsettled

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)


Maigret’s Revolver

Mme Maigret phones her husband at work to tell him there is a young man apparently in some distress waiting at home who wants to see him.  This is not the first time she has allowed an unknown man into their apartment, the trusting woman.  Maigret says he will be home for lunch when he will talk to the lad, but he is waylaid by an old colleague and heads to a bar instead.  Not one overly sensitive to the concerns of his wife, naturally this makes him later getting back, which is fine for him as his wife never complains.

Unfortunately by this time the young man has disappeared.  Mme Maigret had not seen him leave as she was busy frying onions with the kitchen door shut.  Maigret discovers that a Smith and Wesson .45 special he had left out on the mantelpiece after showing it to friends, a presentation weapon given to him when he was in the United States to observe their methods, has also disparu.  Naturally he makes enquiries but seems curiously unbothered by the thought of a young man running around Paris with his gun, especially when he discovers the thief has purchased bullets for it; unbothered enough not to report the theft.   The reason for the visit remains unknown, but Mme Maigret fears the stressed young man plans to do away with himself.

The Maigrets are members of a group which meets up about once a month to have dinner and light conversation, hosted by the oddly-named Dr Pardon, who always serves up interesting fare.  One man, François Lagrange, who was supposed to attend had been keen to know if Maigret would be present, but had not himself appeared, pleading illness.  The evening goes well but the next morning Pardon rings HQ to tell him that Mme Maigret had mentioned the gun business to his wife, and he thought he ought to inform Maigret he had visited Lagrange and found him in a terrible state.

Maigret decides to visit Lagrange, an impoverished baron, to see for himself and discovers that the young man who had visited him and stolen his gun was Alain, Lagrange’s son (if this all seems rather convenient for the plot, it certainly is).  Living in seedy circumstances, Lagrange appears to be ill but anxious with it, and does not know where Alain has gone.  Despite the claims to illness, Maigret learns from the concierge that Lagrange and a cabbie had hauled out a large trunk the previous night and taken it away.  Once the trunk is located – at Gare du Nord railway station – it is found to contain the body of a prominent politician.  Suddenly a minor mystery becomes a significant murder case.  Lagrange promptly appears to lose his mind, or more likely is faking madness.

Alain’s trail leads Maigret to a particular building where he had been seen hanging around.  One of the residents, Jeanne Debul, has gone to London, and it becomes apparent Alain has followed, probably with the intent to use the stolen weapon on her.  This cues a fish-out-of-water section as Maigret arrives in London and is taken to the Savoy by Maigret’s old English friend Pyke in a chauffeur-driven Bentley, though Pyke features very little thereafter.  Maigret is generally impressed by the British police, always nice to hear.

He interviews Debul to little effect, tracks down Alain, and discovers Lagrange père was acting as Debul’s agent in a blackmail operation.  The politician had been a victim and in trying to retrieve incriminating evidence from Lagrange had got himself killed with his own weapon.  Alain’s intention was to punish Debul for what had happened to his father.  Maigret takes Alain under his wing and finally gets to engage in a little flânerie before going back to Paris, having retrieved his own gun and most likely prevented Alain’s murder of Debul (that international travel has changed irrevocably in 60 years is not only evidenced by the ease of carrying firearms across borders, but Maigret requesting a 5.30 am call in order to catch a flight leaving an hour later).  The fates of Lagrange (still feigning madness to escape the guillotine) and Debul are left hanging, though with the likelihood that at least the latter will not escape Maigret forever.

There is more humour in this outing than in most Maigret novels.  The sleep-deprived Chief-Inspector sweating uncomfortably in the heat of a London summer keeps being told what a beautiful day it is – a verdict he can agree with once the case is wrapped up.  In one scene he has to keep watch in the foyer of the hotel and cannot leave to get something to eat but food cannot be served there, and he is forced to surreptitiously eat a bar of chocolate, hell for a trencherman like Maigret.  He has to resort to smoking a cigar in the Savoy Grill as they refuse to permit his pipe.

Above all the barbarous British licencing laws drive a man used to getting a drink whenever he wants batty. However, even with the limitations imposed by the abstemious British much alcohol is consumed during the course of the investigation.  The story ends with Maigret, back in Paris, nipping into a bar for a swift glass of wine while the saintly Mme Maigret patiently waits for him outside, it not being her sort of place.  Fortunately no passing gendarme accuses her of soliciting.

(16 December 2017)


Maigret and the Headless Corpse

The story opens on a canal in the Parisian suburbs.  An overloaded barge scrapes the bottom and dislodges an object which fouls the propeller.  When the obstruction is freed by the bargees it turns out to be a packet containing a human arm, and a further operation recovers the rest of the dismembered body, though minus the head.  The body is that of a man, which surprises the police as most dismembered bodies are those of women.   Fortunately the body has not been in the water more than a few days, but the lack of a head makes identification a problem.

Making routine enquiries – perhaps not even that, in his inimitable way getting a feel for the location and the people living there – Maigret calls into the local watering holes. Entering one to make a phone call in a booth, he is struck by the demeanour of the owner, Aline Calas.  She seems totally uninterested in anything going on around her, including Maigret, and her disengagement gets his attention.  Her husband Omar is it seems away buying wine.  She is slovenly in her habits, an alcoholic and, it turns out, ready to grant sexual favours promiscuously to the local men.

She seems candid in answering Maigret’s questions, but will not elaborate on brief answers, making questioning a frustrating business for Maigret.  He visits repeatedly, fascinated by her enigmatic personality.  With Omar not returned he starts to wonder if his could be the headless corpse, and to scrutinise the café more closely.  But surely his wife would not have been able to chop him up herself, and where was it done?  When the trail leads to a man who is more of a husband to her than Omar was, someone whose flat is immaculately clean, and the kitchen area of the bar has been scrubbed when the rest of the place is a mess, the elements begin to fall into place.

Maigret tries to investigate the case in his own way but is hampered by the interfering examining magistrate who is in charge of the process.  Their methods are at odds – Judge Coméliau is a by-the-book man, believing that a result can be achieved by a set of fixed procedures and disapproving of what he considers Maigret’s unorthodox approach.  This is more intuitive, often happy to leave things to see how they pan out and not necessarily knowing even how he will proceed, rather than forcing the issue.  There is a conflict which ignores Maigret’s long experience and notable record of success, and Maigret find himself conducting the investigation in a way that is at odds with his preferences, simply to keep Coméliau happy.

Surprisingly perhaps for the reader, there is no twist.  The body parts had been dropped into the canal very close to the café, which seems remarkably slack even on the assumption that they will not be found until identification is impossible.  Maigret’s hunch about the Calases proves correct, though the story is slightly more complicated than the crime passionnel that Coméliau assumes.  Even the background information required to put the murder in context is brought to Maigret by a provincial lawyer without too much effort expended by Maigret and his men.  The big surprise is Aline’s wealthy background against which she had rebelled as a teenager, made pregnant by the peasant Omar and escaping to Paris with him.  The death of her father and her sudden inheritance supplies the reason for the killing.

So as a procedural the story is somewhat lacking, but its strength is the psychology of the participants, not  least Maigret himself, whose fascination with his chief suspect begins to border on obsession, to the extent that Mme Maigret jokes he seems to be in love with Aline.  In a life of routine and predictability, Aline is definitely out of the ordinary.  As a result Maigret does go round the houses in his investigation.  Perhaps Coméliau’s blunter methods would have obtained the required results faster and with less effort; but then the Parisian police never seem strapped for resources.  Naturally quantities of alcohol are imbibed during the story, including by Maigret.  At one point the pathologist says that the deceased was not an alcoholic but he did like a drink every hour, or possibly every half hour.  How they decide what the threshold is for alcoholism is hard to imagine when virtually everyone is well oiled.

(5 November 2017)


Maigret and the Saturday Caller

Maigret leaves the office one Saturday afternoon and has the feeling he is being followed.  He arrives home to find a middle-aged man with a hare lip, who identifies himself as Léonard Planchon, waiting for him.  He has been stalking Maigret but had taken a taxi to arrive before him, and Mme. Maigret had trustingly let him into the apartment.  Maigret recognises the man as he had visited police headquarters a number of times, always on a Saturday afternoon, but he would always leave before Maigret had got round to interviewing him.

In between repeatedly apologising for the intrusion, Planchon tells Maigret he wants to kill his wife and her lover.  He owns a painting and decorating firm, but has been eased out by Roger Prou, his wife’s lover, who now behaves like the boss.  Worse, for the past two years Prou has been living in the home and assuming marital duties with Planchon’s wife Renée, while Planchon is forced to sleep on a camp bed in the dining room.  All that keeps him in the home in this humiliating fashion is his young daughter, but he spends his evenings frequenting the bars of Montmartre to keep out of the way of the adulterous couple, and he has become an alcoholic in the attempt to drown his sorrows.

Planchon even informs Maigret that he knows how he will dispose of the bodies: in the manner beloved of organised crime, by using the concrete foundations of a construction project.  He repeatedly says he will commit the murders, and asks what he should do.  Maigret tries to elicit information, while the long-suffering Mme Maigret’s quiche lorraine gets cold and they miss programmes on the Maigrets’ new télévision.  Naturally Maigret advises against such a drastic course of action and Planchet finally leaves.

Despite the rambling nature of Planchon’s statement of intentions, and Maigret having said he is unlikely to carry out the crime because he had talked about it to a policeman, Maigret takes the pre-confession seriously. Before Planchon goes Maigret requests him to telephone each day to say how he is.  This Planchon does once, but not again.  As a result, Maigret becomes concerned and begins looking into the domestic situation.  There no evidence that anything untoward has happened, but Maigret plays a hunch based on long experience and a subtle grasp of psychology.  He feels that Planchon would not have simply left in the way described by his wife, coming home after an evening visiting bars, packing two suitcases and walking into the night.

Despite starting to come down with a heavy cold, which for Maigret means hot rum and lemon self-prescribed on a regular basis, he scouts the area where Planchon lives and drinks.  In one amusing scene in a bar he is recognised by the patrons as the famous Inspector Maigret.  This is the type of police work Maigret misses in his office-bound role, and he likes to get out as often as he can, to the chagrin of his superiors.  They are hesitant to give him the authority to pursue this case because is it even a case?  And Prou might make a complaint of harassment.

Still, Maigret gets his way.  He puts his subordinates on the job, trying to track down Planchon, visiting his haunts, asking questions and seeing what turns up, and he secures a warrant to search the house.  This is a world where considerable police resources can be devoted to a flimsy case purely on Maigret’s intuition, with no idea that a crime has been committed.  In the background to this investigation is that of a series of jewel robberies at posh hotels, one which is eventually solved ‘off screen’ and found to be the work of a young Englishman.

Finally the investigation uncovers a prostitute who had befriended Planchon, and she recounts how on the night he disappeared he was falling-down drunk and she helped him home, leaving him at the door.  Maigret reasons that if her account is true, Planchon could not have packed his bags and left immediately afterwards.  A search of the house uncovers a large sum of money hidden under floorboards which Planchon was supposed to have been given in exchange for ownership of the business.  If Planchon didn’t take the money, it hardly seems feasible that he is still alive.

It transpires that Planchon has been murdered, and eventually his body turns up at a dam (his own idea for corpse disposal was better).  As in real life there is no startling confession of guilt, and justice takes its usual slow course.  However, in court Maigret saves Prou from the guillotine by stating that when his Saturday visitor first called he talked of committing murder, allowing Prou’s lawyer to paint the killing as a matter of self defence.  This may not have been what Planchon would have wanted, but as Maigret notes, he had given an oath on entering the witness box to tell the truth.

Maigret’s world is in a sense timeless, yet there are aspects which show the changes taking place in society.  The Maigrets have just bought a television, and he asks Renée if they have one.  Legal procedures too are changing, with greater involvement by the judiciary in the examination of criminal charges, always looking over Maigret’s shoulder.  Even so, Maigret is always Maigret, plodding along with his pipe and eventually getting his man (and woman).

(21 October 2017)


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