Preface to Georges Sim[enon]'s
Having benefited from the "rehearsals" or "experiments" of Train de nuit, La Jeune Fille aux perles and La Femme rousse, this fourth and last prototype is very close to the official model that the author will bring into focus in Pietr le Letton.
Unlike it predecessors, the story is no longer told from the point of view of one of the ephemeral guilty characters, nor from that of the victim. It is not a novel of a misfortune anymore, but a detective story. And Maigret takes possession of the stage from the opening lines until the last.
The curtain rises on a new setting, a spectacle we will become familiar with... the office at the Quai des Orfèvres. It is November 8, late at night. On a table cluttered with empty beer glasses, the superintendent "without jacket or false collar" is writing his report about a recent affair. We see him surveying the hallways, maintaining rapport with secretaries, the office boy, Judge Coméliau and Torrence. To this real pole of his existence is opposed a second, but here it is only a sketch, to be filled in later. It is his residence, henceforth invariable1: the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir home, reigned over by his 45-year-old wife. Thanks to a visit to a squalid hotel, which he is not displeased to make in person, we learn that he spent three years with "vice" and nearly as many in the "hotel squad".
The scenery having being put up, the author fills in all the props: it rains, but the commissioner wears his everlasting overcoat with its velvet collar. Inseparable from his pipe, Maigret fights the ambient humidity with coffees laced with rum or brandies with water drunk at the counters of small bistros with plebeian decor and names: "Les copains d'Auvergne" [The pals of Auvergne]. And another efficient ally against the humidity of the Simenonesque atmosphere: Maigret's stove. The famous stove, near which stands a shy, blonde girl, whose paleness is underscored by a black suit. She confesses to a murder before the impassive Maigret, then disappears while he answers the phone in a neighboring room. Here is a situation that we will have the opportunity to see again...
The milieu in which the crime occurs is the inexhaustible one of the "little people," in which Maigret loves to immerse himself, and which provides Simenon with innumerable descriptive opportunities. The scene of the crime is a bourgeois building situated on the Avenue de Paris in Montreuil, and therefore for all petit bourgeois: they chose to live in a building worthy of their rank in Montreuil rather than a building unworthy of their rank in Paris.
In this house reigns a concierge as Maigret likes them: provided with a yellow dog, Belleau, and a husband sick several days per month he had been gassed during the First War. Compassionate and aware, she knows more about the occupants of the building than the yellow envelopes used by Simenon to note details concerning them.
Thanks to the detailed summaries that the good woman provides him, Maigret knows the house as if he had lived there. He knows that the Maréchal father and son work at the Ministry of Agriculture, that the second son entered the army recently, but has already had his first leave. He is not unaware of the flu of Mlle Augustine, the old cook who served a duchess, nor of the journey that the Tassets make every Saturday to Rouen to visit the wife's mother.
The victim, Truffier, modeled himself a "captain" in his retirement from the merchant marine. He never went out, didn't see anyone except for the son of his sister, with whom he was not on speaking terms. According to the concierge, he spent his time reading books, and he received a package of them every week. From some discarded wrapping paper, Maigret deduces that he'd just received some from the Geographic Society.
A gesture that Mme Maigret would have approved of.
Then, without seeming to, the commissioner will steep himself in the atmosphere of the dead man.
When leaving the building, Maigret won't feel guilty like Boucheron, the investigator in L'Homme à la cigarette2, not knowing anything of the inhabitants but their names. Maigret will become especially attached to the victim's nephew, a young antique dealer (who, without living in the building, came there a little too often). As for the family next door, the Gastambides, by their social status, exercise on the commissioner a real fascination.
The son is an automobile salesman, intoxicated by the luxury of his clientele and by the false prestige he gets from using his company's cars. The daughter, Hélène, looks strangely like the unknown girl who appeared before the commissioner one night, standing close to his stove. Blonde, well-bred, she plays a role below her status, maid to her family and nurse to her father, a slightly "deranged" widower. A businessman ruined by a stock market crash, he, on the contrary, lives above his condition. His worn-out pelisse clashes terribly with its use on a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. Maigret is moved by his patent leather shoes, shiny... and cracked, and by the cigar that the fallen bourgeois extricates from an empty box to offer him.
Maigret settles himself repeatedly into their home. He escorts the girl, Hélène, to the kitchen, watches them at the table, almost as if he'd been invited. When he doesn't have any precise motive for visiting the Gastambides, Maigret is grouchy, dull. He posts himself in front of their building in the rain like a neophyte inspector in the hope that something will happen.
It didn't take long for Maigret to discover a secret intimacy between Mlle Gastambide and Henry, the nephew of her late neighbor. All the more reason to attach himself to the steps of the young antique dealer, to harass, and to even aggravate him.
"I've had enough of your questions! I won't answer any more!"The "official" Maigret, instead of wanting to hum, would have signaled his indifference while dropping "Sing, Fifi, sing!" He will continue to maintain this same indifference up to the time that the young antique dealer, pushed to the end of his wits, will attack him bodily. They will roll, furiously entwined, on the floor of a bistro, while the commissioner's pipe flies and bursts! It is the tougher, which is to say the elder, who carries the day. The well-raised young man will apologize a little later and offer his victor a superb English pipe. Maigret finds it too beautiful, but resigns himself to accepting it as a peace offering.
A peace followed up by a faithful alliance and... emotion. Henry, the antique dealer-pugilist, depressed that his fiancée Hélène has run away, is downhearted and without hope.
When Maigret puts into effect a strategy to have the girl present herself at the Quai des Orfèvres, he warns Torrence,
From his first meeting with Hélène, he had immediately felt that she belonged to the category of "handle with care." While filling a pause with the familiar movements which provide a moment's break, he had tried to put her at ease...
Maigret stuffed a pipe with the slow gestures of his thick fingers. He knew that it was important not to rush his visitor, that too sharp a question risked startling her. (Part I, Chapter 1.)
The solicitude of Maigret even spreads to the least sympathetic characters it makes no difference. For example, Christian, Hélène's brother. When the automobile salesman, habitual liar, and alcoholic, appears with scratches on his face, and explains them as resulting from a broken windshield due to a traffic accident, Maigret insures that there were no pieces of glass remaining, "He examined the wound, which he separated with his thick fingers" and recommended that he disinfect it.
Maigret is therefore the opposite of the repressive, domineering policeman, full of his own authority. In the psychological maze where, the lone craftsman, he pursues his investigation, he fears
What is he looking for? The guilty party? Surely not. He seeks the truth. Yes, but the truth of the characters... While following, with compassion, their destinies, he attempts to understand what has caused them to deviate, what has pushed them into crime.
This Maigret is therefore very close to the one who will appear in Pietr le Letton or La Tête d'un homme. The same affection for the small people, the same approach to life, the same manner of directing an investigation. Still, there survive in La Maison de l'inquiétude a few concessions to the conventions of the popular novel. His selection of a somewhat pompous title, and his recourse to the "miraculous" device of twins.
The most glaring difference comes from the author's ultimate hesitation in the some of the key choices in adding to the commissioner's portrait. He had shown him to us as surly, grouchy, dull... he adds, but only in this last prototype, "a touch of impoliteness, or even coarseness that, for the most part, was affected only to impress." (Part I, Chapter 4.) Hélène Gastambide even scolds him for keeping his hat on his head after having entered her home. Such a defect and such an attitude would be unthinkable in the official Maigret!
In the same way, the investigator of La Maison de l'inquiétude characterizes his wife as jealous. When we know Mme Maigret better, we will find her incapable of such a feeling. Instead of taking offense at her husband's inviting home a girl whom he had extricated from the streets, she would herself have taken some of the initiative.
The Maigret of La Maison de l'inquiétude, compared with the one of Pietr le Letton, is not quite the same nor quite another. And that is true as well, if one compares him to one of the first three prototypes, in Train de nuit, La Jeune Fille aux perles or La Femme rousse.
Renouncing exaggerated effects and the expressionism in use in the popular novel, the author no longer insists on the massive and powerful aspects of Maigret to express the strength which emanates from him. His physical aspect is revealed through small impressionistic touches: his thick hands stuffing his pipe finely; his sixty-pound weight advantage over a younger adversary in a fist fight.
In the same way, his vocation as a repairer of destinies moves forth more subtly from this point. The detective novel proceeds with an authenticity and credibility which the popular novel felt no requirement for at all.
From the great upholder of laws who permitted himself to forgo arresting one whom they defined as guilty, Maigret has become again an agent of the repressive power, more respectful of the penal code and his professional responsibilities. His compassion toward the guilty, bound within the rigid limits of duty, will be only more commendable. And more striking. Instead of allowing the guilty to flee, he will incite them rather to escape from themselves: he will help them to recover their self-respect.
(translated by Stephen Trussel)
1. Except for a brief period: because of noisy repairs, he will take refuge in Simenon's old apartment in the Place des Vosges.
2. Appeared in the same collection.
I. 1. "I killed a man!"