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Maigret of the Month: Maigret chez le coroner (Maigret at the Coroner's )
8/14/06 –
Whilst residing in the village of Tumacacori in Arizona, Simenon decided to move back to Tucson. The reason being that Denyse Ouimet was pregnant and Simenon required a location where there were more medical facilities.

At the beginning of June 1949 he rented a house from a university professor in East Whitman Street, which was located between the town centre and the desert area outside Tucson. Later in August he moved again, this time to the villa “Desert Sands” on the edge of the town overlooking the desert.

But it was whilst living in East Whitman Street that he wrote the novel Les quatre jours du pauvre home (Four days in a lifetime) which he finished on the 4th of July, followed just over a fortnight later by Maigret chez le coroner, written between the 21st and the 30th of July 1949.

This was the second and the last time that Simenon located Maigret in an American setting. The first was in the novel Maigret à New-York (Maigret in New York’s Underworld / Maigret in New York), which he wrote in March 1946. In the latter novel, Maigret having retired from the police force, is asked to travel to New York from his home in France in order to solve a case in a private capacity.

In Maigret chez le coroner, he is still a member of the Police Judiciaire in Paris and is in America on a study tour of several states observing police procedures and how the law works.

In his last work of autobiography Mémoires intimes (Intimate Memoirs) written in 1980, Simenon wrote:

‘…..Maigret chez le coroner.
This book was practically a report. We have witnessed in the courthouse, with its white walls, where the only adornment was the star-studded flag, in a tense atmosphere over two or three days, proceedings which particularly interested us, as it involved the dramatic death of a young woman at a place that we knew well, between Tucson and Tumacacori.
Four soldiers were involved. The room wasn’t large, the spectators sat on plain benches. No austerity, no decorum. The judge having only just reached his table removed his jacket. and the district attorney and lawyers did likewise. The four soldiers in uniform were seated on a bench in front, without any police to guard them. The boys admitted having been dead drunk the evening they had gone out with the young woman. Were they responsible for her death under the wheels of the little train at that place next to the route running from Tucson to Nogalès?
The judge and the lawyers talked calmly to one another, as if among old friends, which was probably the case. An expert, sent by the railway company, drew maps on a blackboard standing on an easel.
The red-faced coroner, also in shirt sleeves, conducted his inquest.
In the courtroom, people conversed, betting perhaps for or against the soldiers’ guilt. From time to time, the judge struck the desk with his gavel.
“Twenty–minute recess.”
Everyone rushed to drink some beer or a Coca-Cola in the bar situated in the patio of the courthouse or lined up in front of the toilets.
I could just imagine Maigret, so ill at ease whenever he was called to testify in a case in Paris, witnessing this good natured procedure, where even so it was a question of the death of a young woman.
...When it all came out, they had all slept with her, and the girl, who had followed them across the border at Nogalès, where they had a wild time, was then as naked as them.
How and why had the girl been decapitated by the train a hundred yards away? It was really none of my business. I just wanted my good Maigret to get acquainted with Western-style justice, and that was why I wrote this novel, virtually a court record.’ (Mémoires intimes: Paris, Presses de la Cité, octobre 1981, chapter 33, pages 246 and 247, translated by Peter Foord).

This is one of the few occasions when Simenon set a novel or short story in the location where he was living at the time. The courthouse in Tucson was only a short distance from where he was staying at East Whitman Street and obviously he had attended the court there.

Using the elements of a real inquest, with certain alterations, he has slotted Maigret in as a spectator to the proceedings. In the opening pages of this novel there is this information:

Maigret had to make a double effort, as he scarcely had the opportunity to put into practice his English since college and some words escaped him, and turns of phrase eluded him.

There is a supposition here as to whether Maigret was able to fully understand some of the details whilst listening to the various witnesses and from this to formulate the questions that later he put to Harry Cole and the Chief Deputy-Sheriff.

Harry Cole from the FBI is Maigret’s guide throughout his tour to date, but there is no indication if he, or any other official, had a knowledge of French, and in the Tucson courthouse Maigret is by himself.

A moot point, or a weak detail, but I was reminded of it, from time to time as I read through the text.

Later, I wondered how this interesting mystery, played out through a four-day inquest, in Simenon’s version, would stand up without Maigret’s presence.


The English translation wasn’t published until 1980, firstly in the United Kingdom and shortly afterwards in the United States. The translator, Frances Keene, does follow Simenon’s text with a translation in the American idiom and vocabulary, with an occasional deviation from the French.
In the first French edition (Paris, Presses de la Cité, 1949), and reprints, the diagrams drawn in the novel by the four witnesses on a blackboard at the inquest appear in the text. These are reproduced in the first hardback American edition (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980) and in the US paperback reprint (Harvest, 1984), but not in the first hardback British edition (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1980).

Here are the diagrams drawn on a blackboard by the four witnesses at the inquest. These were omitted from the British translation edition. The page numbers refer to those in the text of the British first hardback edition (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1980). click to enlarge

The Mechanics's sketch
Ch. 4, pp 62-63.

Elias Hansen’s Sketch.
Ch. 4, pp 69-73.

Phil Atwater’s Sketch.
Ch. 6, pp 95-97.

Hans Schmider’s Sketch.
Ch. 6, pp 101-106.

Curiously, why was the last sentence of the French text (reflecting Maigret’s thoughts): ‘Qu’est-ce qu’il faisait là?’ — What was he doing there? translated in all the English volumes as ‘Whatever would he see now?’

Peter Foord,
UK

Maigret of the Month: Maigret chez le coroner (Maigret at the Coroner's )
8/10/06 –
[translation]
1. Between Porquerolles and Etretat

At the beginning of the 3rd cycle of the Maigrets, Simenon revived the adventures of his hero with a short story, Maigret's Pipe (pip), set in and around Paris. The first two novels (FAC and NEW) of this 3rd cycle present Maigret in retirement. The author will produce four more short stories (cho, obs, mal and pau), before presenting us with the commissioner back on the job. As if not wanting to "rush" him (!), he gives him time for a vacation (VAC), before returning to the Parisian ambiance (MOR). And it is interesting to note that in Maigret's Special Murder, Simenon spends a lot of time describing the workings of the PJ, the stages of an investigation (the use of evidence, the functions of Judicial Identity, etc.), as if wanting to show us a commissioner's "true work", situating it in a way in authentic reality.

Then Simenon will anchor his character in historical reality, establishing his chronology by relating Maigret's beginnings in Maigret's First Case (PRE).

Simenon will give us three more novels (AMI, CHE and DAM), in which he takes the commissioner outside of Paris, before installing him semi-permanently in the capital. In AMI he is called to Porquerolles; in CHE, his author takes him to America (!); and in DAM he investigates in Etretat.

But from the next novel (MME), Maigret will work almost exclusively in the French capital. A break to provide some clarification (MEM), and Simenon confines his commissioner to Paris, thus giving him the best known (and most authentic?) setting of his actions: of the 40 novels that follow (from PIC), only three are located entirely outside of Paris (PEU, ECO and VIC). In five others (REV, VOY, FOL, SEU and IND), a part of the investigation takes place elsewhere, but all the other novels present the commissioner working completely in "his" city.

2. Maigret discovers America

Even though Simenon has already shown us Maigret in contact with the USA (in NEW), it is in Maigret at the Coroner's that the commissioner discovers America, since in NEW, he was already retired, whereas in CHE he is still on the force.

Maigret in America is a bit of a picture of Simenon discovering the New World… In this novel the commissioner discovers another world indeed, one with different habits and morals from those he knows – the cordiality of Americans, with a "serene" cheerfulness, so serene that it ends up "getting on his nerves" (Ch. 3); the country's wealth, the comfort, the quality, the rules of life... all one whole so perfect that he ends up finding it "a damn nuisance" (!) that he tries to escape, passing from one bar to another; the heat of the country, torrid and endless; the different police systems; and finally, the "typically American" things, the drive-in, cowboys, vending machines, etc.

In spite of everything, Maigret seeks to recover, beneath the obvious differences, the same base of humanity, because "he had decided to understand, and he would" (Ch. 2), because for him, "men and their passions are everywhere the same." (ibid.).

Finally, I would like to suggest that Maigret has, in a way, helped Simenon to "settle accounts" with America. Maigret and the USA is a story in 3 parts... first, approaching an American metropolis in NEW, with its assemblage of clichés; next the discovery of the country in somewhat greater depth in CHE, with a feeling of discouragement and a desire to flee (cf. the last sentence of the novel: "What was he doing there?"); and finally, a French policeman's victory over American gangsters in LOG.

3. Maigret in court

I'd like to return here to this comment by Dubourg: "When in Maigret at the Coroner's he tries a classic kind of Anglo-Saxon detective novel with the action taking place almost entirely in a courtroom, it fails completely." Such is not my opinion, in fact, much to the contrary.

Nearly all the pages in this novel devoted to the coroner's inquest function in the fashion of a dialogue, Simenon's forté, that succeeds in developing a certain theatricalization of the action. This "in camera" confinement within the surrounding walls of the courthouse is well described, the successive presentation of suspects leads us to discover their personalities, just enough so that we form an idea, but without unveiling all their mystery (honestly, what reader could have guessed the guilty party? It is once again Maigret alone who finds the solution, through his understanding of human nature, before the confession.). As for the parade of witnesses to the bench, it is the opportunity for Simenon to present us a gallery of portraits (Ch. 6, entitled "The buddies line up")... Inspector Hansen of the Southern Pacific, "a man of value"; Schmider, "an expert of the first order"; Deputy Sheriff Conley, "a brave man", and Sheriff Atwater, "a solemn imbecile"! Not to mention the first character to take the stage, that Maigret nicknamed "Ezekiel", one of the novel's tastiest characters.

And the sketches? Isn't that also a pretty invention of Simenon's, these small naive drawings scattered in the text?

Finally, my opinion (contrary to Dubourg's), is that Simenon's portrait of a courtroom is quite successful, and he will prove so again when he returns to this genre in ASS.

His public apparently agrees, for "with Maigret at the Coroner's Simenon reached his largest printing in French (610,000 copies). Previously, Three beds in Manhattan (1946, 525,000 copies), Letter to my judge (1947, 470,000 copies) and The Snow was black (1948, 470,000 copies), three so-called 'novels of destiny', had reached best-seller status." (Source: Noces d'encre)

Murielle Wenger
Aug 9 '06

Original French

Maigret of the Month: Maigret chez le coroner (Maigret at the Coroner's)
8/10/06 –
1. Entre Porquerolles et Etretat

Au début du 3e cycle des Maigret, Simenon a renoué avec son personnage en publiant une nouvelle, La pipe de Maigret (pip), dont l'histoire se passe à Paris et dans les environs. Les deux premiers romans (FAC et NEW) de ce 3e cycle nous montrent Maigret à la retraite. Il faudra à l'auteur encore le temps d'écrire 4 nouvelles (cho, obs, mal et pau), avant de nous présenter le commissaire dans l'exercice de ses fonctions. Comme s'il ne voulait pas "brusquer" (!) son personnage, il lui donnera le temps de prendre des vacances (VAC), avant de retrouver l'ambiance parisienne (MOR). Il est d'ailleurs intéressant de noter que dans Maigret et son mort, Simenon prend beaucoup de temps pour nous décrire les rouages de la PJ, les étapes d'une enquête (utilisation des indices, travail de l'Identité judiciaire, etc.), comme s'il voulait nous montrer le "vrai" travail d'un commissaire, le situant en quelque sorte dans une réalité authentique.

Ensuite, Simenon va ancrer son personnage dans sa propre réalité historique et biochronologique, en nous racontant les débuts de Maigret (PRE).

Simenon laissera encore le temps de trois romans (AMI, CHE et DAM), où il promène son commissaire hors de Paris, avant de l'installer quasi définitivement dans la capitale. En effet, avez-vous remarqué que dans ces trois romans, Maigret travaille ailleurs qu'à Paris? Dans AMI; il est appelé à Porquerolles, dans CHE, il est emmené par son auteur jusqu'en Amérique (!), et dans DAM, il enquête à Etretat.

Mais, dès le roman suivant (MME), Maigret va travailler quasi exclusivement dans la capitale française. Le temps de faire une mise au point (MEM), et Simenon cantonne son personnage à Paris, lui donnant ainsi le cadre le plus connu (et le plus authentique ?) de ses actions: sur les 40 romans qui suivront (dès PIC), il n'y en a que 3 dont l'action se situent entièrement hors de Paris (PEU, ECO et VIC). Dans 5 romans (REV, VOY, FOL, SEU et IND), une partie de l'enquête se déroule ailleurs qu'à Paris. Tous les autres romans nous présentent le commissaire travaillant dans "sa" ville.

2. Maigret découvre l'Amérique

Même si Simenon nous a déjà montré Maigret en contact avec les USA (dans NEW), c'est dans Maigret chez le coroner que le commissaire est censé découvrir l'Amérique, puisque dans NEW, Maigret est à la retraite, alors qu'il est encore en fonction dans CHE.

Maigret en Amérique, c'est un peu une image de Simenon découvrant le Nouveau Monde: dans ce roman, le commissaire découvre vraiment un autre monde, d'autres habitudes, d'autres mœurs, qu'il compare à ce qu'il connaît: cordialité des Américains, avec une "gaieté sereine", tellement sereine qu'elle finit par mettre "Maigret en boule" (chap. 3); richesse du pays, confort, qualité, règles de vie, tout un ensemble tellement parfait qu'on finit par trouver tout cela "emmerdant" (sic!) et qu'on cherche à y échapper, en passant d'un bar à l'autre; chaleur torride et étendue sans fin du pays; différence du système policier; et enfin, les choses "typiquement américaines", tels les drive-in, les cow-boys, les machines à sous, etc.

Malgré tout, Maigret cherchera, sous les différences apparentes, à retrouver le même fond d'humanité, parce qu'"il avait décidé de comprendre et il comprendrait" (chap. 2), parce que pour lui, "les hommes et leurs passions sont partout les mêmes." (ibid.).

Finalement, j'aurais envie de dire que Maigret a, en quelque sorte, aidé Simenon à "régler un compte" avec l'Amérique: Maigret et les USA; c'est une histoire en 3 volets: première approche d'une métropole américaine dans NEW, avec son cortège de clichés; découverte un peu plus en profondeur du pays dans CHE, avec une sorte d'écoeurement et d'envie de fuir (cf. la dernière phrase du roman: "Qu'est-ce qu'il faisait là?"); et enfin, victoire des policiers français sur les gangsters américains dans LOG.

3. Maigret au tribunal

J'aimerais revenir ici, comme je l'avais promis, sur cette affirmation de Dubourg: "Quand dans Maigret et le Coroner il s'essaye à un genre classique du roman policier anglo-saxon où l'action se déroule presque entièrement dans une salle de tribunal, il échoue complètement.". Tel n'est pas mon avis, au contraire.

Presque toutes les pages consacrées dans ce roman à l'enquête du coroner fonctionnent sur le mode du dialogue, un genre qui fait la force de Simenon, qui réussit une certaine théâtralisation de l'action. Ce "huis-clos" confiné à l'enceinte du tribunal est fort bien décrit, la présentation successive des suspects nous fait découvrir leur personnalité, juste assez pour que l'on s'en fasse une idée, mais sans dévoiler tout leur mystère (franchement, qui, parmi nous lecteurs, aurait deviné qui est le coupable? C'est Maigret seul, une fois de plus, qui a trouvé, par sa compréhension de la nature humaine, la solution, avant même l'aveu du coupable). Quant au défilé des témoins à la barre, c'est l'occasion pour Simenon de nous présenter une galerie de portraits (chap. 6, titré "Le défilé des confrères"): l'inspecteur Hansen de la Southern Pacific, un "homme de valeur"; Schmider, un "expert de premier ordre";le deputy-sheriff Conley, un "brave homme", et le sheriff Atwater, un "solennel imbécile"! Sans parler du premier personnage entré en scène dans le roman, celui que Maigret a surnommé "Ezechiel", un des plus savoureux personnages du roman.

Et les croquis ? N'est-ce pas aussi une jolie invention de Simenon, ces petits dessins naïfs qui parsèment le roman ?

En définitive, mon avis est (contrairement à ce qu'affirme Dubourg), que la peinture que fait Simenon d'une salle de tribunal est tout à fait réussie, et qu'il prouvera encore par la suite qu'il s'en sort bien dans ce genre (cf. ASS).

Le public ne s'y est pas trompé, puisque "Avec Maigret chez le coroner, Simenon atteint son plus gros tirage en langue française (610'000 exemplaires). Auparavant, Trois chambres à Manhattan (1946, 525'000 exemplaires), Lettre à mon juge (1947, 470'000 exemplaires) et La neige était sale (1948, 470'000 exemplaires), trois romans dits de la destinée avaient atteint le statut de best-sellers." (Source: Noces d'encre)

Murielle Wenger
9 aug '06

English translation

 

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