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Firsts The Book Collector's Magazine
June 1998, Vol. 8, No. 6
pp 24-31

Worldwide Detectives

by Tom Rusch

The best authors render a psychological profile of the
locale and the inhabitants where the mystery takes place

 
[Only the Maigret sections — the complete article also discusses the works of
Arthur Upfield (Napoleon Bonaparte) and Earl Derr Biggers (Charlie Chan)]

 
... Georges Simenon was a prolific French writer of mysteries and novels of suspense. I think of his character Maigret as the French equivalent of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason. Maigret is a policeman and Mason a lawyer, but both were featured in a huge number of mysteries. The books are at the same time formulaic and very readable.

Never having been to Paris, many of my images of life there have been gleaned from Simenon's Maigret novels. Maigret wears a hat and smokes a pipe and the underlying structure of his day seems to have something to do with finding a place to stop and have a drink on his way from one place to the next as he investigates murders. It's the pipe smoke, the zinc-covered bars, Maigret's fellow policemen and, in a supporting role, Madame Maigret, that provide a nexus for Maigret's activities.

In Maigret at the Crossroads, an early entry in the series, Maigret is called out of Paris to investigate the murder of a diamond merchant from Antwerp in a sleepy rural crossroads neighborhood. At first Maigret seems too much out of his element as he goes about interviewing the inhabitants of the three buildings that make up the village. These people are parochial and insular. It's not that they don't seem capable of committing a crime; it's that there doesn't seem to be any connection between them and the crime that was committed.

Maigret and his colleague Lucas spend their time walking the crossroads, interviewing the inhabitants and ruminating about what could have occurred. When the widow of the murdered diamond merchant comes to the area and is also shot, Maigret's anger impels him to redouble his efforts.

Maigret's crime-solving methods give Simenon an opportunity to limn the French character. While At the Crossroads is an early novel and doesn't have as much social insight as later Maigret novels, there is a sense of the claustrophobic nature of French village life.

The first suspect in the diamond merchant's murder is the one resident who isn't French. Carl Andersen is from Denmark and because he's an outsider, he's considered the obvious suspect. Andersen has a sister, who lives with him in a rented house. There is also Mr. Oscar, who runs an automobile garage and lives behind it with his wife. The third house belongs to Mr. and Mrs. Michonnet, in whose automobile the diamond merchant was found dead.

No one has seen or heard anything. No one really likes anybody else or socializes with them. Yet there has been a murder in their midst and Maigret must figure it out. In the end it is the community's unsociability that brings about Maigret's solution.

Madame Maigret and a friend of the couple's play a leading part in Maigret's Revolver. Someone has come to Maigret's house to speak with him, but before Maigret arrives home for lunch, the visitor leaves. When Maigret shows up, his wife tells him that a revolver he keeps at home is missing.

Madame Maigret fears that the young man who stole Maigret's revolver wants to kill himself, so her husband keeps an eye out for young suicides. Pardon, a doctor with whom Maigret and his wife dine that evening, asks Maigret to go with him to see a schoolmate. The man was to have been part of the dinner party, but suddenly was taken ill and seems on the point of collapse.

It's almost too much of a coincidence when Pardon's school chum mentions that he is worried about his son, who hasn't been home since yesterday. What saves this contrived setup from becoming boring is the personalities Simenon creates within the plot and the social connections and disconnections that underlie the plot.

Unlike Upfield, with his depiction of the Outback, or Biggers, with his conceit of having an American of recent Chinese descent interact with American society, Simenon paints his French landscape in subtle colors. He shows how small groups come together in a seemingly haphazard fashion and how out of this fission come crime and punishment.

Simenon gives us much more of Paris in None of Maigret's Business. Maigret is advised by Doctor Pardon to take a vacation. Because it's summer and hard to book a hotel in the countryside, Maigret and his wife tell people they've gone away, but decide to stay in Paris and discover the city as tourists would.

Maigret sits at his window in the morning, watching the neighborhood. He and Madame Maigret go out for lunch and walk around the city. After a couple of days of this, Maigret notices a newspaper story about the body of a young woman found in the office of a prominent Parisian physician.

He is tempted to cut his vacation short and take over the investigation, but instead he follows the murder as would an ordinary citizen. He reads the details in the newspaper, discusses the case with his wife and listens to and chats with people in bars and cafes.

What is uncovered is another small group of people, brought together by circumstance, amongst whose lives a crime has been committed. The body turns out to be the wife of the doctor, Jave, in whose office it was found. Jave and his wife were supposed to have been vacationing at the beach, so what was Madame Jave doing in Paris? Then there's the younger physician who was taking care of Jave's practice and his fiancee, whose father is a well-known Parisian attorney.

Maigret is our guide to the solution of the murder, but he unravels it without his usual coterie of policemen and witnesses. None of Maigret's Business is not so much a portrait of the police department as it is a snapshot of the social fabric of Simenon's Paris. In this novel we are introduced to some citizens of Paris, their histories and daily activities, and are given to understand how they reflect the mores and passions of the city.

 
... When I do visit Paris, I will look for the small bistros and sidewalk cafes that Maigret frequents rather than the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysees. It is for his pleasurable and fascinating glimpse of daily life in Paris, as much as for the mysteries and murders, that I read Simenon.

 
... Simenon and Maigret collectors have a different problem. There are more than 100 Maigret novels to collect. They were first published in Paris; purists might choose to collect Simenon in the original French. The first English language publications were British.

Harcourt, Brace published many Simenon titles in the United States in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. These books appear with regularity in collectable condition and are reasonably priced. It's the earlier titles, published in English before 1960, that will take more effort and a more generous budget to acquire. I see these earlier volumes at book fairs, priced in the $75 to $100 range.


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