Today at Crime Pays we meet an icon of the genre, Chief Inspector Jules Maigret, Hero of many novels by the astonishingly prolific Georges Simenon. There is a note right at the front of the book about Simenon, in which it is noted that he wrote 75 Maigret novels, and 28 Maigret short stories, part of a larger oeuvre of over FOUR HUNDRED novels, essays, etc. I didn't actually believe this so I used the google and sure enough, Simenon was indeed one of the most prolific authors of the 20th c. According to this entry on Wikipedia (I know, what have I sunk to?) he wrote under more than two dozen pseudonyms. How did he keep them all straight? It is a . . . MYSTERY.
That distracting fact aside, I'd like to tell you more about Maigret, but the truth is that I didn't learn much from this slim novel. It is not a complex tale - a local character has been killed, after boasting publicly about his famous friend the Parisian Inspector Maigret - and there is a small cast of somewhat colorful local characters, one of whom will surely be the perp. My Friend Maigret (1949; this edition Penguin, 2007) comes almost half-way through the list of Maigret books, but there have been a couple dozen before this and there is a sense here that that you must already know everything you need to know about him, so we can dispense with character development.* Maybe that is how you write four hundred novels in a lifetime. Anyway, Maigret finds a small clue and the whole resolution spins out of that, once placed in the context of the characters.
I kept confusing Maigret with Hercule Poirot, which is funny because I've never read a Poirot novel, but I've seen David Suchet's embodiment of the fastidiously brilliant Belgian any number of times on PBS and once you've seen Poirot, you will see all French detectives comme ca. But what else did I have to go on? Simenon doesn't give us much. I know that Maigret is married, likes his wife, doesn't love her brother-in-law, is a bit portly, and smokes, but who doesn't, after all this is France. And he's a little bit of a snob. Of the surprising Mrs. Wilcox, he notes upon meeting her that "He had imagined a lady, and she was a redhead . . . ." (104) What a splendid put-down. That said, Maigret is the good kind of snob, who dislikes fakery and inauthenticity. He is particularly repelled by the brash Mrs. Wilcox, her fawning-but-at-the-same-time-seething-under-his-striped-shirt secretary, and the cold artist/anarchist Jeff de Greef. The most sympathetic characters here are the barmaid and the local cop.
Maigret is presented in this book as already famous, but you don't learn why other than that he's a great detective. I feel a little bad that I never really connected with ol' Jules, because he's also famous as a character - everyone says you should know Maigret if you are interested in crime fiction (although, he does not show up on nearly as many lists of famous fictional detectives as, say, Miss Marple or Magnum P.I.). And, he's French! So he's quite proper, dresses well, and surely enjoys his food. Regardless, I was happy to spend time on the lovely French island of Porquerolles, the setting of this story. It is a rocky perch just off the coast in the fantastically clear Mediterranean. "It was a good thirty feet below, but the water was so clear that the minutest details of the underwater landscape were visible. And it really was a landscape, with its plains covered in greenery, its rocky hills, its gorges and precipices, among which shoals of fish trooped like sheep." (27) Clear water is a bit of a digression, but it reminded me of swimming in Greece on my honeymoon so here it is.**
On Porquerolles, you arrive by boat from the mainland (always a good thing), and everyone sits around drinking white wine (rarely just wine, and never cold, but almost always white wine, as in "let's go have some white wine" or "she sat, drinking white wine"), avoiding the midday sun and gathering to eat and drink and argue and laugh at the main hotel in the evening. The whole place smells like bouillabaise all the time. "In actual fact, there were several smells. The principal one, the smell of the house, which one sniffed immediately on crossing the threshold of the cafe, he had been trying to analyze since that morning, for it was a smell which was unfamiliar to him. It struck him every time as he went in, and, each time, he would dilate his nostrils. There was a basis of wine of course, with a touch of anis, then the kitchen odors. And since it was a Mediterranean kitchen, with foundations of garlic, red peppers, oil, and saffron, this made it differ from the usual smells." (90) Merveilleux!
My low-level dissatisfaction with this book is really about the sense I had that there is indeed something wonderful here, I just didn't find it. Here's how I know.*** That passage about the smells of the hotel was a clue that there is occasionally something transporting in Simenon's writing, be it a scene or character or setting. I found it late in the story. It is Sunday morning, and in France, you know what that means.
"Here there was an unprecedented noise of bells. They were not proper church bells, but small, high-pitched ones, like chapel or convent bells. One was led to the belief that the quality, the density of the air was not the same as elsewhere. One could distinctly hear the hammer striking the bronze, which gave out some sort of a note, but it was then that the phenomenon would begin: a first ring would carry into the pale and still cool sky, would extend hesitantly, like a smoke ring, becoming a perfect circle out of which the other circles would form by magic, ever increasing, ever purer. The circles passed beyond the square and the houses, stretched over the harbor and a long way out to the sea where small boats were anchored. One felt them above the hills and rocks, and they hadn't ceased to be perceptible before the hammer struck the metal once more and other circles of sound were born so as to reproduce themselves, then others, which one listened to in innocent amazement, as one watches a firework." (156-157)
Isn't that just lovely? I shall always think about bells on Sunday differently from now on.
*If you've been reading Crime Pays for a while you will know that I vastly prefer to read series in order. Why didn't I start at the beginning here? A friend gave My Friend Maigret to Bill, so we had it around the house. Stop being so rigid about series in order, I said to myself, you'll have to read 31 of these before you can start this one! Now I wish my introduction to Jules Maigret had been more formal, so I shall go back to the beginning. I wish I had started there, but who has that kind of time?
**I assumed Porquerolles was fictional, but it is not and now that I've used the google again and seen some images I want to go there RIGHT NOW.
***If you want to learn more about Simenon, there was a fascinating interview with him in the Paris Review in 1955. You can read it here. You don't need to go far into the interview to learn about his writing style, and I'm so glad that the paragraph above made the cut.