1. Bibliographic points
Simeon's last "American" novel (the last Maigret written in the USA (January 1955), and thus the last novel the author wrote at Lakeville. The next novel, a non-Maigret, will be The Black Ball that Simenon wrote after his definitive return to Europe, while he was spending some time in Mougins, in the French Maritime Alps). It's also one of the best Maigrets, at least in my opinion... Rereading it, I felt that I'd certainly include it in my "top ten" favorite Maigrets... Which got me to considering which I'd include in my "top ten", and I tried to make a list. A distressing experience, and a terrible ordeal... not only was it very difficult for me to "grade" among all the novels in the corpus those that I considered the 10 best, for I had to abandon along the way some good ones, but it still remained to attempt to organize the 10 remaining ones... Finally, I decided to keep 12, since making a choice was truly too difficult. So, I tried, and here are my results...
1. Maigret and the Fortuneteller (Signé Picpus)
2. Maigret in Society (Maigret et les vieillards)
3. Maigret's Special Murder (Maigret et son mort)
4. Maigret and the Young Girl (Maigret et la jeune morte)
5. Maigret Takes a Room (Maigret en meublé)
6. Maigret Goes Home (L'affaire Saint-Fiacre)
7. Maigret and the Toy Village (Félicie est là)
8. Maigret and the Headless Corpse (Maigret et le corps sans tête)
9. Maigret in Montmartre (Maigret au Picratt's)
10. Maigret and the Man on the Bench (Maigret et l'homme du banc)
11. Maigret and the Bum (Maigret et le clochard)
12. Maigret Mystified (L'ombre chinoise)
Fellow Maigret fans, won't you do me the favor of trying it yourself, and coming up with your own "top twelve"?
2. Three reasons (among others) to like this novel
Why is this novel on my favorites list? For numerous reasons. First, the action takes place in an area of Paris which is one of the symbolic views of the city... the Saint-Martin Canal, bordered by the Quai de Valmy and the Quai de Jemmapes. Next, it reminds me very much of another of my favorite Maigrets, Maigret's Special Murder in the two novels, Maigret is confronted with the little world of a bistro of the quarter, into which he tries to "integrate" himself. And finally, in COR, Simenon has given life to a character undoubtedly one of the strongest in the corpus, that of Aline Calas, with whom Maigret establishes a special relationship.
The Saint-Martin Canal
Most of the action takes place in a rectangle defined geographically by Quai de Valmy, Quai de Jemmapes, Rue des Récollets and Rue du Terrage, point at the Gare de l'Est and another at the Saint-Louis Hospital (see the map below). The story begins between Quai de Valmy and Quai de Jemmapes... the Naud brothers, before departing on their barge, go for coffee at the bar Chez Popaul, Rue des Récollets. Dieudonné Pape works in a company on Rue Terrage, and lives on Rue des Ecluses-Saint-Martin. Omer Calas's suitcase was stored at the checkroom at the Gare de l'Est, and among the clients of the bar are staff from the Saint-Louis Hospital.
As I mentioned above, this novel reminds me of Maigret's Special Murder, for in both cases, a good part of the investigation takes place in the little bistros of the quarter which our Chief Inspector loves so dearly. In both stories, Maigret tries to "install" himself into the same frame as the characters he is investigating. Thus, in MOR, "the Chief Inspector, his overcoat and hat off, seemed to truly take possession of a new domicile. In less than half an hour, he was at home, and went from time to time to install himself in front of the counter." And in COR:" he remained alone in a little café as if he were the proprietor, and the idea amused him so much that he slipped behind the counter."
But there are still other elements in COR which recall other novels... for example, it's a chance for Simenon to once more evoke the world of barges, even if it's only a secondary element in the story. The Saint-Martin Canal, its lock and the barges which pass, bring to mind PRO, CLO and ECL; the idea of Calas's body discovered by the Naud brothers will be taken up again in CHA, where it's also a bargeman who will discover Sabin-Levesque's body; and finally the name of the Naud's boat, Les Deux-Frères, makes us think of the boat of the bargemen in TEM; the Twee Gebroeders, which also means "The Two Brothers". And we note the history of Aline's family, that of a livestock merchant become rich, which reminds us of similar stories in PRE and PEU.
A remarkable character
This is not the first time – nor the last! – that Maigret is confronted with a female character who will make life difficult for him. Aline Calas is no doubt one of the characters who most affects the Chief Inspector, both because the puzzle she presents represents for him one of those human mysteries which he so much wants to crack, and also because she represents the symbol of one of those destinies he would like so much to mend... he feels, from the first, that this woman doesn't fit in this bistro, and that her alcoholic apathy hides a heavy past. First surprised by her physical aspect ("She was thin, ageless ... with a sullen face", but she "must have been pretty"), Maigret guesses very quickly that "she was not someone ordinary", that her passivity and her inertia hide perhaps a blasé indifference.
Drawn by this enigmatic woman, he returns to the bistro, less to investigate a murder than to try to understand. Moreover, the Chief Inspector feels for Aline "an interest such as he hadn't had occasion to feel for another person for a long time." And he has no need to ask her many questions to understand, for he finds they are a close enough match... "It was if the two were of equal strength, or more exactly, as if they'd both had the same life experience." Once he'd come to this realization, there remained for the Chief Inspector to discover the basis for the "human problem" that she represented for him... "For him it was something else, he didn't know yet exactly what, and as long as he didn't know, as long as he was unable to "feel" the truth, he'd remain prey to a vague malaise." This malaise must perhaps be attributed to the fact that Maigret had very quickly understood that Aline had played a role in the death of her husband, but attracted by a sort of fascination with this woman, he was reluctant to consider her guilty.
It is striking to note that, in spite of the accumulated evidence (Dr. Paul's analysis of the cadaver, the suitcase from the checkroom, the evidence discovered by Moers in the bar), Maigret always resists arresting Aline: "It became less of a police investigation to find the guilty party, than a personal affair between Maigret and this woman." But it seemed all right that the battle between these two characters could not reach a conclusion neither victor nor vanquished, for, as said above, they were equally matched. That's why there remains for Maigret but a single solution for the discovery of the truth... The Chief Inspector must "get rid of" the problem of Aline but putting it on Coméliau. From Ch. 6, he is no longer directly involved with her, and won't see her again until the end of the novel. To escape the power of the fascination she exercises on him, he must avoid seeing her, he must be physically removed from Aline. He still thinks of her – often! – and it's only by immersing himself, in some way, into the frame where she lives – Aline only leaves once! – that he is able to discover the truth about her. The proof is his almost intuitive telephone call to the barrister Canonge, which only serves to confirm what he already understood.
A very strong character, thus, this woman, and I can only encourage you to see the excellent interpretation by Suzanne Flon in the series with Jean Richard, who is, he too, in this episode, a Maigret "truer than life"...
3. The stations of Paris
The Gare de l'Est plays a not unimportant role in this investigation, since it's there that Omer Calas's suitcase was checked. Also mentioned in the novel are the Gare du Nord, Gare d'Orsay, Gare Montparnasse and Gare d'Austerlitz. This large number of stations mentioned got me interested in - once more – a tour through the corpus in search of these edifices.
To begin with, some information about the great stations of Paris. There are actually six...
Gare d'Austerlitz - trains for central France, Toulouse and the Pyrenees, as well as for Spain.
Gare de Lyon - trains heading for the southeast of France and Languedoc-Roussillon; as well as some for Switzerland.
Gare de l'Est - trains for the east of France and Germany.
Gare du Nord - trains for the north of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
Gare Saint-Lazare - trains for Normandy.
Gare Montparnasse - trains for the west and southwest of France.
These six stations are evoked in the Maigret novels, and to these we can add the Gare d'Orsay, the old terminal of the Paris-Orléans Company. During the '50s, its function was limited to trafic for the suburbs, the traffic of the main routes being transferred to the Gare d'Austerlitz, and it was then transformed into a museum dedicated to 19th century art, the Musée d'Orsay.
The stations are symbolic places in the Maigret series, and also in Simenon's other novels. Maigret more than once leads investigations beginning in a station, since he often has occasion to take a train, especially at the beginning of the corpus (see MoM, September 2007).
I was curious to see which stations were most often mentioned in the novels... Here are the summary results of my survey (the first number is the number of citations in the entire corpus, novels and stories):
The Gare du Nord: symbol of cold, the flight to Belgium for criminals seeking to escape justice, the station most frequently mentioned in the corpus. It's there that Simenon disembarked in Paris in 1922, "on a December morning, rainy and cold. Because of that image, I hate the Gare du Nord. Nothing depresses me more than seeing it in the distance." (in [A Man Like Another]). As Michel Carly wrote in [Maigret across Paris], "the novelist doesn't hesitate to transfer this lack of esteem", and in fact, he gives his Chief Inspector the same dislike for this station. It's in the Gare du Nord, under "the monumental skylight", on "the platforms ... swept by windy gusts" that Maigret awaits the arrival of the train bringing Pietr the Lett to Paris (LET). First image of an inhospitable station, such as that discovered by the young Simenon arriving in Paris: "The Gare du Nord, horrible, in which I don't know how many trains disgorge their human contents who, half asleep, sullen, troop towards the exits." (in Intimate Memoirs). The first image also, of a Chief Inspector leading an investigation in the cold of November, and what better place to represent the desolate atmosphere of late fall than this station? It becomes a symbol in itself, and its very name evokes the cold of the wind... "I was assigned to a certain building, somber and sinister, called the Gare du Nord. ... It had the advantage of being a shelter from the rain. Not from the cold and wind, for there's probably nowhere in the world with such currents of air as in a station, as in the Gare du Nord" (MEM); "It was as bright in the streets as under the skylight of the Gare du Nord" (LOG, in a downpour!).
But this station is also the symbol of daily life, in which it's the hardest and gloomiest... "The Gare du Nord, the coldest, the most bustling of all, evoked to my eyes a harsh and bitter battle for one's daily bread. Was it because it led to the regions of mines and factories?" and further, "I always had a grim memory of the Gare du Nord. ... I always see it filled with the damp and sticky fog of early morning, with a half-awake crowd, trooping towards the streets or Rue de Maubeuge." (MEM)
Maigret also uses this station in PHO, logically, since he's taking a train for Germany, and he disembarks there on his return from Belgium. And that's where he leaves from to follow Graphopoulos in GAI, and when he follows Martin in OMB to Jeumont and where he brings him back to in Paris on "a gray morning", in "the suburban crowd, half-asleep, pouring out the doors.". And that's where he follows Jehan d'Oulmont in pei; it's near the Gare du Nord, at the Brasserie du Cadran on Rue de Maubeuge, that Little Albert worked (MOR); where Lorraine Martin had bought a suitcase (noe); where Maigret investigated at the North Star Hotel (eto); where Lognon "retrieved" Philippe Mortemart (PIC); where Sad Alfred telephoned to Ernestine (GRA); it's in the checkroom of this station that Lagrange checked his trunk; it's Rue de Maubeuge where Alain attacks a passer-by; and it's from this station that Jeanne Debul embarks (REV). And it's also in this station that Maigret finds Gérard (CEC), and where Stiernet is discovered sleeping on a bench (VIN).
The Gare de Lyon: this station, as opposed to the preceding one, has a rather cheerful image... "The Gare de Lyon ..., just like the Gare Montparnasse, makes me think of vacations." (MEM). It's a station Maigret uses when he goes to the south of France, to warm places, and the station itself makes you think of spring or summer. And so it's via the Gare de Lyon that he goes to Saint-Fargeau (GAL), Cannes (MAJ), Porquerolles (AMI), it's from there that Meurant leaves for Toulon (ASS), there too that Maigret had run into Benoît who was leaving to go fishing (MIN); and if the Gare du Nord is, in Simenon's descriptions, always swept with a cold wind, the Gare de Lyon is just the opposite, it makes him think of throngs leaving on vacation... "at the Gare de Lyon, the trains double and triple added for the holidays whistled frantically." (GUI), "They announced eight supplementary trains, and the crowd, in the main hall of the station, on the platforms, everywhere, with their suitcases, trunks, bundles, children, dogs and fishing poles, looked like an exodus. They were all headed for the countryside, or the sea" (AMU).
The Gare Saint-Lazare: used for trips to Normandy and Great Britain via Dieppe, it's to there that Maigret returns from Fécamp (LET), from there that he takes the train for Dieppe (man) and Etretat (DAM), that Pétillon leaves for Rouen (FEL), that Campois leaves for Le Havre (FAC), and that Jeanine Armenieu goes to Deauville (JEU).
The Gare Montparnasse: the station of departure for the west and southwest of France, it's from there that Boursicault leaves for Bordeaux (MEU), that the lawyer Chapuis leaves for Concarneau (AMU), it's there that Nicole Prieur says she arrived from La Rochelle (DEF) and where Calas would have left for Poitiers (COR).
The Gare de l'Est: is more ambiguous in the corpus, both sad (MEM: "Seeing the Gare de l'Est, for example, I can't stop myself from feeling gloomy, because it always reminds me of the mobilizations"), like the role it plays in COR, since it's there that Calas's suitcase was consigned, and cheerful, for it's from there that they take the train for their vacartions in Alsace, with Mme Maigret's family. And it's also where Mme Maigret's sister disembarks when she comes to visit (AMI).
The Gare d'Orsay and the Gare d'Austerlitz: serve the Central lines... It's from the Gare d'Orsay that Maigret leaves for Dordogne (FOU),and that Mme Maigret leaves for Meung (ECL), and from the Gare d'Austerlitz that Martin Duché leaves for Fontenay-le-Comte (CON) and where the lawyer Canonge arrives from Boissancourt (COR).
4. Which deals with a jumble of sloe gin, a cat, and a reconstruction....
"Before putting on his coat, he poured himself a small glass of sloe gin."
This sentence, taken from Ch. 7, is a part of the ritual enacted by Maigret in the course of his investigations, this one consisting of taking a small glass of alcohol from the buffet in the dining room, before leaving the warmth of his home to plunge himself once more into his case...
This alcohol is often a fruit brandy, made by Mme Maigret's sister. We cite here once more Jacques Sacré and his work "Bon appétit, commissaire Maigret", in which the author analyses Maigret's relationship with alcohol... " At a precise moment in the investigation, when something has been triggered, Maigret becomes heavier, denser... He is in a state of intense receptivity. He claims often that alcohol makes him more sensitive, more alert, that it sharpens his senses. Pretext or reality, it's a fact that at that moment he soaks it up, and not only his environnement. ... If his wife's family regularly renews the supply of sloe gin or raspberry brandy, it's hardly his own doing. How could he avoid, in the evening, a little glass of sloe gin... it's almost a family obligation." He adds further along that sloe gin "is not that easy to find, in fact, it's uniquely at home that Maigret can satisfy his craving. Now, at home, he doesn't really drink... the sloe gin is just a little treat, allowed by Madame Maigret." So, in fact, let's consider Mme Maigret and the sloe gin... we recall that in MEM; Louise suggested that her husband to clear up a certain issue "... Simenon spoke of a certain bottle which was always in our buffet on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir ...and which my sister-in-law, following a tradition that had become sacred, brought us a supply of from Alsace on her annual visit. He wrote carelessly that it was sloe gin. Actually, it was raspberry brandy. And for an Alsatian, that, apparently, is a serious difference."
Alas! Louise may be disappointed, for in spite of the rectification made by her husband, Jules, he will nonetheless continue to imbibe sloe gin, as apparently Simenon was not too upset by Mme Maigret's remark... indeed, if before MEM, it was sloe gin that Maigret found in his buffet (mentioned in PHO, MME and noe, under the term "plum brandy" in REN and (as mirabelle) in OMB), after MEM, it's still sloe gin that the Chief Inspector savors in MEU, LOG, TRO, JEU, MIN, COR, TEN, SCR, CLI, CLO, DEF, VIC, VIN, IND et CHA, and in CON, it's sloe gin that Mme Maigret puts in the coq au vin, while raspberry brandy only appears in ENF and PAR...
Perhaps the key to the mystery is given in PAR, where, during the same investigation, Maigret finds in his buffet sometimes raspberry brandy and sometimes plum brandy... And if the buffet contains the two liqueurs? It also holds, in other novels, Calvados... And if after all, Maigret prefers sloe gin to raspberry brandy?...
We note in this novel, the importance of Mme Calas's cat, which is a little like the soul of the place... When Maigret enters the bar for the first time, there is no one in the room, "nothing but a fat orange cat, sleeping near the stove", which symbolizes the apathy-filled ambiance that Aline gives the bar. In the afternoon, on his second visit, Maigret again finds "the orange cat [which] was still near the stove, from which he seemed not to have budged." Immobility of the animal, immutability of things, the lassitude and indifference of Aline... The next day, Maigret finds once more "the cat sleeping next to the stove".
Once Aline is sent to Judge Coméliau, what to do with the cat, who is like an image of Aline herself? Maigret brings it to the butcher's, a chance for Simenon to have Maigret show his feelings about Aline out loud... "she's an unfortunate who's not responsible".
Later, when Maigret returns at night to the bar to immerse himself in the place, he again finds the cat, to which he speaks in a monologue of reflection (see, if you can, how the scene is rendered in the Jean Richard series). And finally, it's the absence of "feeling" of Coméliau with regard to the importance of the cat to Aline, which will be one of the reasons for the animosity between the judge and Maigret... "She only asked me, in leaving my chambers, if you had taken care of her cat." "And what did you say?" "That you had other things to do." For that, Maigret would never forgive Judge Coméliau."
Were you, like me, a little "disoriented" while reading the novel, by the accumulation of "Fridays", "Saturdays" and "Sundays" which are supposed to establish a chronology of the crime? To try to clear it up, I've attempted a sort of "reconstruction", based on the clues scattered in the text, and here is my result...
Calas's body is discovered Tuesday morning, March 23 (cf. Ch. 1 and 2), and, based on Dr. Paul's first estimations, the crime occurred around two or three days earlier, either Saturday or Sunday (Ch. 2). Aline states that her husband left for Poitiers on Wednesday (Ch. 2), and the suitcase was checked into the station checkroom on Friday (Ch. 4). We note however that the employee of the checkroom contradicts himself (at least if it's not Simenon...) and states later in Ch. 5 that it was Sunday that the suitcase was brought in. On Sunday, Dieudonné Pape was at his sister's (Ch. 6), a confirmable alibi and so apparently true. We have to wait for a later chapter to learn that Thursday, Maitre Canonge came to see Aline, that Saturday Calas went to Saint-André (so he had actually left on Friday, as Aline had said, but not for Poitiers), and that he had returned to Paris on Saturday night. He'd fought with Aline, and Dieudonné, who had come to visit Aline, came to her rescue and killed Calas. On Sunday, Aline and Pape cleaned the back of the bar (Ch. 6) and had someone go and check in the suitcase at the station, the suitcase that Calas hadn't had time to unpack on returning from his trip. And if the checkroom attendant was mistaken in believing he recognized Antoine, he might well have been mistaken in affirming at first that the suitcase had been checked in on Friday...