The Other Side
Inspector Cadaver was written in 1943, when Georges Simenon was living in a country retreat in the marshy Vendée region of France with his wife Tigy, his mistress Boule and his small son Marc. The book is set in the Vendée, in a small town Simenon calls Saint-Aubin-les-Marais. It's the kind of place in which everyone knows each other's business; where gossip and rumour help to alleviate boredom and despair. Superintendent Maigret of the Police Judiciaire arrives in Saint-Aubin on a curious mission, following a request from the examining magistrate Victor Bréjon in the Palais de Justice in Paris to stay with Bréjon's brother-in-law, a wealthy farmer named Etienne Naud. A young man, Albert Retailleau, had been found dead on the railway line near Naud's house, and rumours are rife in the town that Naud had somehow been involved in the accident, if such it was.
On the journey to Saint-Aubin, Maigret is surprised to see Justin Cavre, a disgraced policeman now turned private detective, on the same train. Cavre had worked under Maigret some years earlier, earning the nickname Cadavre (Cadaver) from his fellow officers because of his sullen, moody behaviour. Cavre had been discharged from the force after it was learnt that he had accepted bribes in order to boost his salary. He was and, presumably, still is in romantic thrall to a wife with expensive tastes. The pale, miserable-looking man ignores his former chief as they wait on the platform and in the buffet at Niort for their connection to Saint-Aubin. They will speak eventually, towards the end of the novel, in circumstances that are in every way surprising.
Speaking to a newspaper reporter in 1963, Simenon observed:
Maigret is one such policeman. In book after book, he is driven to hide the fact that he feels a certain sympathy, or even empathy, for the broken individual he is questioning. It's this aspect of his complex character that makes him so different from, and so much more believable than, most other fictional sleuths. Simenon invests him with an entirely credible sense of decency. Maigret is aware that, given peculiar circumstances, he too might have committed a similar crime. It's a knowledge he has to keep to himself, for professional reasons, but his creator lets the reader in on the secret. During the tortuous course of Inspector Cadaver, Maigret identifies a murderer, from whom he elicits a pained confession, yet it isn't this deluded person the superintendent finds himself despising. He looks beyond the murder, and sees another criminal who will evade being brought to justice for ever. He loathes what he sees, and gives his loathing frustrated expression. Maigret, for once, hits out quite literally, with the palm of his hand.
To describe Simenon as a crime writer is to do him a serious and unwarranted injustice. He is, on his good days and he had lots of good days a great novelist. The sheer range of his understanding of the human heart, of what it means to be brought low by passion or the need for money, is unparalleled in twentieth-century fiction. Inspector Cadaver, on first examination, may appear to have been written to a formula, but a second reading reveals its subtle shadings. Its depiction of provincial snobbery and hypocrisy, the two entwined, and of the huge gulf between Them and Us, is chillingly exact. The gullible Albert and his deeply honest best friend Louis Fillou are destined from birth to be on the 'other side' in this kind of squirearchical society, coming as they do from peasant families. One is destroyed by the truth, the other betrayed by its repression. Both hapless young men are referred to in the shocking last paragraph of the book, by way of acknowledging the harm that has been done to them. The reference honours them as well, for their very existence in a corrupt and demeaning milieu.
The fabulously rich Simenon whose sales almost equalled those of Shakespeare and the scribes responsible for the Bible never forgot what it was like to be impoverished, and in this novel he demonstrates to what obscene lengths some people will go to buy the next drink or, in one appalling case, keep quiet. Simenon is the consummate expert on pettiness, an aspect of human nature that tends to be satirized by writers as diverse as Dickens and Jane Austen. Simenon plays pettiness straight, as he does stinginess or meanness of spirit. He makes no judgement, even a comic one. He simply and how apt 'simply' is remarks that X is tight-fisted and that Y has an inner life that could be in absentia. He then gets on with the story.
And what a story it is the more intriguing for being so publicly unspoken. At one point in the narrative, Maigret realizes that without the impassioned assistance of the pock-marked Louis he would never have discovered what he does discover. Louis opens doors, but he also opens mouths that were determined to stay shut. In a brilliant conceit, the famous superintendent realizes that the earnest carpenter might be outwitting him in the matter of detection. He is exasperated and keen to be rid of the youth without whom he despite his considerable expertise would be threshing about in the dark. It transpires that Louis is the original instigator of the rumours concerning Etienne Naud. He admits to Maigret that he sent three unsigned letters to the Director of Public Prosecutions in nearby Fontenay-le-Comte on learning of the discovery of Albert's body on the railway line. Louis is convinced that his friend would not have taken his own life, and it is that conviction that causes him to be if only for a moment or two the superior detective.
'I consider myself an impressionist, because I work by touches. I believe a ray of sun on a nose is as important as a deep thought,' Simenon once said of his method of writing. Inspector Cadaver is full of 'touches'. The town's postman, for example, has been illiterately nicknamed Josaphat, instead of Jehoshaphat:
'He's called Josaphat because when his wife died he had more to drink than usual and kept on saying through his tears: ''Goodbye, Céline ... We'll meet again in the valley of Josaphat ... Count on me.'''
And then there is the forbidding Clémentine Bréjon, Etienne's mother-in-law, who is instantly captured as a 'small, sprightly old lady with a wry expression on her face reminiscent of that on the busts of Voltaire'. One sees that curled lip, and hears her 'curious falsetto voice' as she casually insults the bemused Superintendent Maigret. The reader is not told that she is an arrogant snob. Her arrogance and snobbishness are conveyed, effortlessly, through the words Simenon gives her to speak. She inhabits only one scene, but she leaves an indelible impression.
Simenon limited himself to a vocabulary of 2,000 words, acting on the advice of Colette, who warned him against writing 'beautiful sentences'. He is avowedly not a 'poetic' novelist, with all that term implies of self-conscious stylishness. He doesn't invite his readers to pause and coo over a finely turned phrase. The tale is paramount, and the manner of telling it economical and necessary. Yet the cumulative effect in his finest novels, especially those he called romans durs, is haunting and unforgettable. Those petty lives reverberate in the mind. Simenon is the connoisseur of wasted opportunities, of men and women who take the wrong turning at the crossroads. Poor Albert, poor desperate Louis the two victims in Inspector Cadaver are drawn without sentimentality, with no encroaching pity on the author's part, but their plight stays with the reader. That is Simenon's crafty and humane intention.
Inspector Cadaver was originally published in English with the feeble title Maigret's Rival. The book isn't really about rivalry. It's concerned with a certain mortification of the spirit, as exemplified by Justin Cavre and the soi-disant aristocrat Alban Groult-Cotelle, a man whose worthlessness is demonstrated with a multitude of 'touches'.
The flaws in Simenon's life have been well-documented, particularly in his preening memoirs. He was extraordinarily productive: 76 Maigret novels, and 117 romans durs. Yet writing was agony for him, and had to be done quickly. In his greatest books he ventures into the abyss, confronting desolation head-on. The composer and diarist Ned Rorem conveys the essence of his genius in an astute entry in Lies: A Diary 1986–1999. He writes:
As Balzac and Proust described the ills of the Western world by refracting those ills almost solely through the upper classes, so Simenon, like Genet, reflected the world as seen through the eyes of criminals or the very poor. There was nothing he did not know, and nothing he could not describe. His knowledge embraced every branch of human learning, and his description came through the use of the specific, as distinct from the general, adjective.