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The Funny Bone
J. Maclaren-Ross
London, Elek Books Ltd.
1956

MAIGRET AT OXFORD

A Maigret pastiche

by J. Maclaren-Ross

(Translated from the French, Maigret chez les Don)

IT WAS DROLL! Maigret could scarcely keep from smiling. And yet had the word Don really conjured up in his mind the image of a Spanish hidalgo, proud and dignified, wrapped in a black cloak and sporting a flat-topped hat with a wide brim, like the figure advertising that brand of port he understood these English professors sipped after dinner at their hautes-tables or in their chambres communes? Perhaps not really. And how unlike this conception, anyway, that smiling young man who had conducted him through the empty streets of Oxford after his arrival from London late the night before! Too young, at a glance, to hold such a title at the Varsité, as Maigret knew it to be called by its inmates. And yet... Was there a mocking glint, almost of irony, in the eyes behind his spectacles? Was his deference assumed, as he pattered along, glancing up every now and again at the black reassuring bulk of the formidable commissaire? Maigret couldn't quite make out.

'And you think you'll find the solution, monsieur le commissaire?'

In perfect French too! Why not, though, since he was a Professor of French? It was his métier!

Ignoring the question, Maigret growled, puffing tranquilly at his pipe: 'They certainly economize on lighting in your town.'

'But that's just it. A great help to the criminals...'

'Criminals?' Was there, again, an undertone of mockery in the other's voice?

'The problem you're here to investigate, monsieur.'

'Oh, that!'

The street they were walking down was certainly dark, and very long. Called Merton, if Maigret properly understood. Thick barred windows ran along one side of it; a grim stone building like a prison on the other. And his guide soon confirmed this impression, for, pointing at a solitary light burning behind a pane on the left, he exclaimed in a hushed tone: 'The Warden!'

Maigret jerked his head. He remembered his recent visit to New York.

But again the Professor – Don! – by his side was calling attention – this time to a floodlit tower which rose, a graceful awe-inspiring spectacle, towards the star-sprinkled sky directly in front of their view.

Maudlin!' he said, lapsing – perhaps out of emotion – into English.

Again Maigret nodded briefly. He knew English well enough to get the sense of that, anyway! He'd heard the word used often about a certain state of drunkenness dans les pubs. Doubtless the sous-gradués returned in adult life to gaze upon this landmark with tears in their eyes – which accounted for its name! It was certainly a sight worth clapping the peepers on – the only one, to tell the truth, that Maigret was to see in Oxford!

For now, the next morning, he'd to admit it seemed just an ordinary provincial town. Woolworths, Marks and Spencers. Women out shopping. With baskets. Pushing prams. And a market. Vegetables. Provisions. Flowers. But covered in, and no one shouting from stall to stall as they'd have been in France!

Maigret emerged into the street again and mopped his forehead. It was a hot morning for England. The sun shone here, it seemed, same as anywhere else! He took a glass of beer from his pocket and drained it gratefully. Nowadays he always carried two or three about with him, ever since he'd been caught short by this barbarous British custom, that they called les lois de licence, or, more familiarly, ouverture et fermeture temps.

But – hang on! – he'd misjudged the country after all. Ils were open already – here was a door swinging wide on a smell of ale, as though to welcome him in...

Le publique comptoir. Tables. Wooden benches round the walls. A board for the jeu de dards. Empty except for himself and the gouverneur in shirt-sleeves awaiting his order by the sandwiches under a glass dome.

'Police Jucliciaire!' growled Maigret. 'Bière!'

And sat down calmly at a table, with a thick glass jar of the English blond beer, called amère, in front of him. What was it that young don – a doctor, apparently! Would you believe it! – had said on taking his leave last night?

'I know your methods, monsieur le commissaire! No good inviting you to any of the colleges! Though that's where many of the crimes were committed, and where the criminals are probably hiding out right now... No! You'll simply go to the nearest biere-maison, sit down with a pipe and a pint, and wait till the problem's worked out to your satisfaction... Well, la meilleure de la veine, Insp... I mean, Commissary!'

And he'd reason! Maigret, his pipe – stuffed with grey tobacco, naturally! – clamped between his jaws, smiled grimly at the recollection. Problem, indeed! It seemed to him there was no problem...

He took two books from his pocket and placed them on the table; then a packet wrapped in brown paper, marked Not to be opened until midi... The young professor had given him this at parting...

'A valuable clue, monsieur Maigret! Quelle honte I've to be in London tomorrow and won't be there when you open it...'

And again Maigret could have sworn he was laughing up his sleeve .. . The clock above the counter marked five minutes to midday... He smoked on peaceably, taking an occasional pull at his beer, under the watchful stare of the gouverneur – who'd no doubt recognized him from reading les pingouins verts! Two minutes to twelve...

And still Maigret sat impassible. For, whatever the packet contained, clue or no clue, he'd already made his decision. He glanced again at the titles of the two books, translating them to himself into French...

Le Sourieur au Couteau... Stopper, Presse!...

No! He'd made up his mind. What after all, did it matter if two dons cared to write police romances under pen-names? And why should their secret be exposed? All this talk of crime and criminals... it was enough to make one laugh! If they wished to indulge a taste for vicarious murder, thus bringing entertainment to thousands of readers on whom they'd never set eyes... well, why not? He could imagine them at home... men with wives and families... growing children to support... school-fees to pay... People with worries like any other, quoi! No doubt, the added earnings, the royalties on these romances, came in very useful!

And who was he, Maigret, to be their judge? There was no crime! And did he not, himself, owe his very existence to such a creator? Who'd once written, also, under a name not his own...

'Gouverneur!' he growled. 'Un cabriolet!'

And the good man hastened to the telephone, almost tripping in his haste... Maigret drank up his beer and set down the mug decidedly. There! It was over! He would keep the secrets of these professors safe, sous son chapeau... Or, as they'd put it in France, under his melon...!

A bell was tolling somewhere in the town... the stroke of midday. Probably the one he'd been told was le grand Tom, or some such name.

...Maigret's fingers fumbled with the wrappings of the parcel impatiently. What odds, now, what clue it contained?

Another book. With a yellow jacket... He picked it up idly, translating the title as best he could. Le Souper de Mark Lambert. An author unknown to him .. .

But then his teeth almost met in the stem of his pipe, for what was this... written below what his London editors would've called le blurb? 'Your cab's waiting, Mr. Maigret!'

It was the gouverneur, calling out jovially from behind the counter, but Maigret paid no attention, a little smoke curling up from his pipe, his gaze fixed on the words in front of him... words of which he thought at first he hadn't grasped the sense.

But there could be no doubt about it, really! Mr. – or perhaps he ought to say Don – J.I.M. Stewart wrote detective novels under the pseudonym Michael Innes... a fact Maigret was well aware of – but here were his editors proudly proclaiming it for all to read! The secret he'd been going to keep was no secret any more... he supposed everyone in Oxford – in England, perhaps! – had known it for some time...

'Your taxi, sir...'

But still Maigret made no move. Now, at last, he understood the ironic gleam in the young professor's eyes! He, Maigret, had been made a fool of... a victim of the famous blague pratique des Anglais!

He rose to his feet, jamming on his bowler, ignoring the taxi-driver waiting deferentially for orders at his elbow...

'Where to, Mr. Maigret?'

Maigret swung round. He was about to growl, 'To the devil!' But suddenly, beyond the chauffeur and the gaping gouverneur, he caught sight of something on the wall... something whose existence he'd ignored until now...

A calendar. And on it the date, perfectly plain, for everyone to see... Friday, April the 1st.

And suddenly, to the taximan's astonishment, Maigret's bad temper vanished, and he began to laugh...

'Chauffeur,' he said, with great good-humour, 'à la station!'

NEXT WEEK

Another Full-length Inquest of the Formidable French Commissioner!

THE BABYHOOD OF MAIGRET
(Maigret a la Crèche)

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