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Maigret of the Month: L'Ombre Chinoise (Maigret Mystified) - 1

12/01/04 –

(Quotations are taken from the translation by Jean Stewart published in Penguin Books UK, N° 2024, 1964).

This is one of the few times in this early series of novels that Maigret investigates a crime within his jurisdiction - the city of Paris.
The crime has taken place at the end of November in the Marais area of the city in one of the houses in the Place des Vosges. This Square was completed in 1610 and has nine houses with identically designed façades on each of its four sides that overlook the enclosed central formal garden with its trees, benches and fountains.
In this novel, Simenon plays safe by locating the crime at N° 61, which does not exist, as there are only 36 houses in the Place des Vosges, but by the naming of neighbouring streets and other details, it is most likely that the house the author is describing for the setting of this crime is N° 21 (on the 3rd arrondissement side, in the north west corner):

'Less than a hundred yards away…the Rue de Béarn…' (page 7).
'"It's almost at the corner of the Rue de Turenne…"' (page 13).
'"A laboratory where they make serums…Dr. Rivière's Serums…"' (page 9).
'Facing him were the offices and laboratory of Couchet's firm.' (page 56).

N° 21, Place des Vosges, Paris (3rd arrondissement). (Photo: Peter Foord 1999).
From mid-summer 1924 until early 1929, Simenon lived at N° 21 Place des Vosges, at first renting two modest rooms off the courtyard on the ground floor, then at the end of the summer of 1926 a much more spacious apartment on the second floor. In reality at the end of the courtyard were the Laboratoires Hoffmann-Laroche, which Simenon used in his novel, but with a change of name.
The author wrote L'Ombre Chinoise in December 1931 at the villa "Les Roches Grises" at Antibes (Alpes-Maritimes) on the French Riviera, having moved there after selling his boat, the Ostrogoth, early in November.
In this novel, Maigret is called to the house by the concierge and after the inspection of the crime scene by the Parquet, the Examining Magistrate and the district police, he is left to investigate by himself. Although he has the resources of the Quai des Orfèvres at his disposal and his own team on which to call, he carries out the investigation virtually on his own. Apart from a later journey to Jeumont on the Franco-Belgian border in order to bring back a suspect, and with a few visits to addresses in Montparnasse, the Montmartre area and the Boulevard Haussmann, most of his attention is focused on the house.

Map of part of Paris showing the Place des Vosges at the time when Simenon first lived there (in the north west corner), with the surrounding areas. (Baedeker's Paris and its Environs, 1924).

Maigret is informed by the concierge that there are twenty eight tenants living in the house, as well as the daily laboratory staff, whose details have been collated at headquarters, but intuitively he decides to concentrate mainly on those tenants and others who are connected by family ties, friendship or work.
With these dozen or so people, Simenon presents a collection of very varied personalities of different ages and backgrounds. Maigret moving among them gradually encounters feelings of enmity, greed, class distinction, hatred and paranoia, with more than a touch of irony. Also it is possible to gauge with these early novels the direction in which he was aiming.
This novel was the fifteenth that Simenon had written and one of a series that Fayard was publishing under the author's patronym. Of these fifteen, all but two involved Maigret, the others being Le Passager du "Polalys" (The Mystery of the "Polalys") and Le Relais de Alsace (The Man from Everywhere), both in the mystery vein.

The Arcades of the Place des Vosges (Photo: Peter Foord 1999).

'Under the arcades which form a tremendous girdle round the Square there were few lights. Only in three or four shops.' (Page 7).
On the left of the photograph there are shops, cafés and now some art galleries, with, at intervals, doors that lead to the interior of the houses. On the right are the arches through which there is direct access to the roadway.

By now, Simenon had developed his method of expressing his ideas through the creation of Maigret. At times, the latter, in the course of his investigations, comes up against someone who taxes his mental powers in various ways, as Jean Radek in La Tête d'un Homme (A Battle of Nerves), or Anna Peeters in Chez les Flamands (The Flemish Shop) or Juliette Martin in the current novel. As an extension of this focus on a particular person, less than a year later Simenon started to write (non-Maigret) novels such as La Maison du Canal (The House by the Canal), Le Coup de Lune (Tropic Moon) and Les Fiançailles de Monsieur Hire (Monsieur Hire's Engagement), where it gave him the opportunity to explore the character from a different perspective, from the individual's point of view.

Peter Foord, UK


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