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Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations
Julian Symons
Illustrated by Tom Adams
Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York
1981
pp 79-93

 

About Maigret and the Stolen Papers

by Julian Symons

FROM THE WINDOW OF THE FLAT IN THE Boulevard Richard-Lenoir Maigret could see that it was a fine morning. There had been a week of gusty, rainy weather, the kind you must expect in early March as everybody said, but now it was spring. He could see it all from the window, the sun shining, girls wearing new dresses, young men in light-coloured suits. He would have liked to be out there, among it all, catching on his nostrils the early morning smell of Paris that would still be lingering in the air, coffee and hot croissants, with just a hint of rum. Meanwhile - he looked at the paper in front of him, the sheets in the wastepaper basket, and sighed.
His wife called: 'What is it?'
A good smell came from the kitchen. 'What's for lunch?'
'Morue a la crème.'
One of his favourites! But still, he sighed again. Madame Maigret appeared in the doorway. She was wearing a cotton housecoat he particularly liked, one printed all over with little flowers. 'What's the matter?'
'It's that devil Simenon. He's got things all wrong again.'
'What is it this time? Not the bowler hat?'
Simenon had spotted a bowler hat in Maigret's office cupboard, and had put it in several stories. It was an old hat, and for years now he had been wearing a trilby like other people.
'Not the hat this time, it's just . . .' Just that the portrait was not quite right, not Maigret. Or not the whole of Maigret. 'He saw me at the office, followed me about on cases, but how much does he know about me after all? I'm trying to put down something that will help him, details about my life. It's not so easy.' He hated paper work. The only job he ever shirked was writing up reports. 'Listen to this.'
'Fifteen minutes. Then I must go back to the kitchen.'
'It won't take long. I have jotted things down very briefly. Born in central France, not far from Moulins. I shan't give the date, why should readers know everything about me? Grandfather a tenant farmer, and farming goes back for generations. Father manager of the Saint Fiacre estate, twenty-six farms and seven and a half thousand acres. We lived in a pretty house in the château courtyard, rose-coloured brick. Other families who worked in the château lived all round the courtyard. When they spoke to my father it was cap in hand.' He had put down a pipe on the table. Now he picked it up, relighted it. 'That Florentin!'
'Who do you mean?'
'Léon Florentin. He was at school with me, the Lycée Banville in Moulins. Do you know what he said my father was? A sort of upper servant on the estate. And this was after Florentin had come crawling to me for help when his mistress was murdered1. He was a rat, that Florentin. I looked up to my father. He never drank-'
'Not like his son.'
'True. Though he was not the same man after my mother's death. You know she died in pregnancy when I was eight years old, I have told you that. I was left alone with my father. He was not unkind, he was never unkind to me, but he became very silent. He was only thirty-two, a young man. Not that he seemed young to me then.'
Madame Maigret sat down at the table. Only occasionally did he talk about the past, and then he liked her to listen. 'And then the Lycée.'
'When I was twelve. I went as a boarder, but only for a few months. There I knew that wretched Florentin. My father knew I didn't like it, though I never complained. He sent me to live with my aunt-'
'The one at Nantes?'
'That's right. He died at forty-four. I was a medical student then at the Collège de Nantes, gave it up after he died. That seemed to be a time of crisis, I don't know why. I might have been a doctor, like Pardon. Instead, I became a policeman. Well, I always wanted to be a guide to the lost, and a policeman can be that as well as a doctor.' He tapped his pipe almost angrily on the table. 'The point is, what does Simenon know about all this, what does he really know about Jules Maigret? Very little. What has he ever said about my entering the police force through Inspector Jacquemain, who lived in the same little hotel as myself on the Left Bank? Or about my early years in the force? I was in uniform for seven or eight months, has he described that? Then I was in plain clothes, but I was thirty before I entered the Special Squad, the Homicide Squad. How much has he written about all that part of my life, the days when all the officials wore frock coats and top hats, and there were still horse-drawn buses? Little or nothing. Or about my first meeting with you, the invitation to your father's house-'
'You wore your father's dress suit, and kept on eating petit fours.'
'You were a plump girl in blue, with sparkling eyes.'
'Not so plump. But how could Simenon put such things down, when you have never told him about them? If you want people to know all that, you'll have to write about it yourself. But I can't stop any longer. The morue ...'
It was good sometimes to let off steam like that, although the truth was that Simenon couldn't be expected to know everything, and wasn't a bad fellow on the whole. But still, he left out too much, so that the picture was unbalanced. So much of Maigret's life was spent here in this third-floor apartment on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, and there was not enough about that. What about the fact that he smoked in bed sometimes, that there was a glass-fronted wardrobe beside the big double bed? What about those tedious yearly visits of Mouthon, who was married to Louise's sister, and nearly drove both Maigret and his wife crazy on their yearly visits that lasted an interminable nine days? All that was his life, as much as the Quai des Orfèvres. Perhaps he would one day write something more than these notes, something that would describe in detail that whole early period. If he did so, however, there were a few things that he would leave out, like the slightly comic and even ridiculous affair that had begun with the telephone call from little Lapointe....
It had happened years ago, in the early thirties, while he was still Chief-Inspector. On the previous night they had been to the cinema, he had been tired, and as sometimes happened had fallen asleep. Louise had not been pleased, and on the following morning he had been happy to escape to the Quai des Orfèvres. It was September, a grey heavy day, but still he was pleased to pass through those portals. Even the great central lobby, which at times seemed to him the dingiest place on earth, was comfortably familiar.


He was glad to be sitting in his old-fashioned black wooden chair at his black desk, selecting a pipe from the half-dozen in the rack, looking from the black marble clock on the mantlepiece, around the dusty shelves, and finally at the great coalburning stove, of the kind you still see in provincial railway stations. To stoke up that great stove until the bars were red hot had always been one of the pleasures of winter. Nowadays he had a big office, a proper room for a Superintendent with its bookcase-cupboard on one wall, a desk twice the size of his old one, and the impressive-looking safe by Monard, in which he kept a bottle of Calvados for a cold day. There was a fine view of the Seine, the warmth from the big radiator beneath the window was comforting to the legs. This office was better all round, no doubt about it. But still, when he looked at the black marble clock on the mantelpiece, the single relic he had preserved from the past, it seemed to him that he had liked the old office better.
So in the old office, on that heavy September morning, he put on a shovelful of coal while he wondered what Louise would cook for him after their little disagreement. If it was something he liked, say fricandeau of veal, it would mean that he was forgiven, if it was haricot mutton, then a peacemaking token was needed. Perhaps he should take back a bunch of roses in any case . . .
At the nine o'clock meeting that day they dealt as usual with a dozen cases, and talked about twenty things unconnected with crime. Maigret's particular concern at the moment was with the proceeds of a big jewel robbery that had taken place a few weeks earlier. A jeweller in the Rue de Rivoli had been cleaned out, a professional job. There was no doubt about the thieves, they were the Duhamel brothers, Jean and Louis. The break-in showed their usual method of operation, the safe had been blown with an explosive no other gang used, an old woman opposite had seen them leaving.
Why weren't they locked up? Because the old woman failed to identify them, their houses were clean, they had provided themselves with alibis. It was a matter of waiting for them to make a move. Last week Maigret had been told by an informer that Jean and Louis were sick of being watched. They had given up hope of getting the stuff abroad quickly, and wanted to get rid of it. They were ready to sell to the Pole.
The Pole did not get his name from his nationality, for he was French, but because he was as long, thin and straight as a telegraph pole. He had an apartment in the Rue Jacob where he lived quietly with his mistress, a young woman whose beautiful but expressionless features led her to be called the Mona Lisa. Maigret had visited him there, for there were occasions when the Pole had acted as an informer himself. He abominated violence, refused to handle goods that had been obtained by beating up or injuring people, and had tipped off Maigret more than once about such cases. He did not specialize, like most fences, but would handle gold, forged francs, jewellery, almost anything except drugs. He paid very low prices, so that most thieves steered clear of him. If Jean and Louis were ready to sell to the Pole they must need money badly.
On the other hand the whole story might be a fiction. Or the informer could be wrong. A watch was put on the Pole's apartment, even though he was a careful man who refused to keep anything compromising on the premises. And a man was put on to the Duhamels. Today little Lapointe was tailing them, and Torrence was watching the apartment. At ten thirty Lapointe called in.
'Chief, I think I'm on to something. I'm in a bar called Freddy's, near the Porte d'Orléans.'
'Yes.' He knew Freddy's, a workman's bar with a zinc counter, chipped and stained tables, sawdust on the floor. Dominoes and cards were played there.
'Louis Duhamel is in a café across the road.'
'Yes?'
'The Mona Lisa is with him. I am in the window, and can see them.'
'What are they doing?'
'Talking, drinking coffee. I don't think they're on to me.' Lapointe was always optimistic, but it was true that he was less familiar than older hands like Lucas and Janvier.
'Stay with them if they leave. Otherwise call me again in half an hour.'
Five minutes later Torrence rang, big noisy Torrence who was full of energy but lacked the head for anything subtle. He had seen the Mona Lisa go out, but had not thought it worth calling through specially. Otherwise he had little to report, except that a doctor had visited the Pole's apartment.
'How do you know it is his apartment?'
'I talked to the concierge. She liked me.' It was true that Torrence always got on well with concierges, hotel doorkeepers, chauffeurs. 'It is a Dr Chastel from the Rue de Tournon. The concierge thinks the Pole has a visitor who is ill.'
'Anything else?'
Torrence gave his booming laugh. 'There is a little fellow and a big one planted over the road in a café. They come out in turn and look around as though they are smelling the air. Sometimes they look at me standing in a doorway. The big fellow might be one of us. The little one, I don't know.'
'What does he look like?'
'I couldn't tell you,' Torrence said, and laughed again. 'Do I stay here, chief?'
'I know Dr Chastel. I'll try to get hold of him. Call me again in a few minutes.'
He had met Chastel in connection with an assault case a year or two back, and had liked him. The doctor did not demur at giving the information. He had been called to see a man who was suffering from a bad attack of malaria, had prescribed quinine, and said that he should not be moved for two or three days. The man was a German, around thirty, and gave the name of Schmidt. He seemed nervous, but was certainly suffering from malaria. Chastel had seen the Pole, who was polite and calm as usual.
What had this to do with Louis Duhamel and the jewels? Very likely nothing at all. So much of police work meant sitting in an office at the end of a telephone, giving instructions and making guesses, hoping that the guesses were right. When asked about his methods, Maigret always said that he had none. He had knowledge, not method, and based himself on that knowledge. Mostly it was right, occasionally wrong.
When Torrence called back, Maigret told him to stay where he was unless the Pole went out, and then to follow him. As for the big fellow and the little one, very likely they were concerned with some other affair.
Then Lapointe's eager voice again. The Mona Lisa and Louis had moved, not once but twice. They were now in a café near the Place de la Bastille, off the Boulevard Beaumarchais. It was a big place, crowded, and Lapointe had felt it safe to go in and sit at a table. He did not think he had been spotted.
It looked as though Louis and the Mona Lisa were making sure that they were not being followed, before Louis took the woman to look at the goods. Maigret made up his mind to go out there himself. At that moment he was sick of being at the end of a telephone, even sick of his comfortable office the stove, which he had stoked up so that the bars were red and it was uncomfortably hot.
At the same time he was a little uneasy. Why hadn't the Pole come out himself to put a price on the stuff? What was that German doing in the apartment, and who the devil were the couple on watch in the Rue Jacob?
Outside, the air was clammy, humid. He took a cab to the Boulevard Beaumarchais. The Mona Lisa knew him, so he did not go into the café, but Lapointe was on the watch and came out.
'Still there?'
'Still there. They are on to glasses of wine now.'
'What are they doing?'
'Not much. Louis seems down in the mouth. With her you can't tell.'
'Look out.' Maigret turned away, lowered his head, put up his coat collar. He had seen the two of them at the café door. They began to walk down the street, stopped, went back and re-entered the café. On the Mona Lisa's slightly wooden features Maigret discerned the ghost of a smile. He cursed.
'What's the matter?'
'She's seen me.' Without any attempt at concealment he peered through the window. Louis was leaning against the counter looking bored. The Mona Lisa had made straight for the telephone. Maigret waved for a cab. To the startled Lapointe he said, 'Jump in.' He gave the man the Rue Jacob address.
'I don't understand. Are you leaving them?'
'The Mona Lisa was a decoy. Something's going on at the Rue Jacob, and they wanted to make sure I didn't know about it. As soon as she saw me she went back to ring the Pole and tell him the coast was clear. I wish I knew ...'
'What, chief'
He was worrying about the little man and the big one, but didn't say so. Instead he asked pettishly, 'Why doesn't it rain?' This humid, still atmosphere was a kind of weather Maigret particularly disliked.
When they reached the narrow Rue Jacob there was no sign of Torrence, nor of the big man. As they got out of the cab, however, a small man popped out his head from the café across the road, took a look at them, then put his head in again like a tortoise. He had long pointed moustaches and wore a bow tie. Was there something familiar about him?
Lapointe was looking up and down. 'What now?'
The concierge.
The Pole lived in one of those elegant, shabby houses common in this quarter. The concierge was shut up in a little hutch within the courtyard. She was a woman of sixty, ugly and with a figure almost square, but still inclined to be flirtatious. 'Chief-Inspector Maigret? The other one said you'd be calling. He's gone shopping.'
'Who?'
'The Pole. When the Mona Lisa is out he often takes the shopping bag, buys the food. The other one has gone after him. A fine big man, that one.' She simpered.
'What about the visitor? The one who is ill.'
She jerked a thumb. 'Still upstairs.'
What was everybody playing at? The Pole out with a shopping basket, the Mona Lisa leading him on a wild goose chase, all of them watching somebody else. He felt hot, irritable, inclined to round the whole lot of them up and start asking questions. He told Lapointe to call the Quai des Orfèvres, find out who was free and ask them to come down. After that he was to keep an eye on the little man across the road. Maigret himself went up to the Pole's apartment and rang the bell. No reply. He rang again.
'Who is that?' The voice was weak, quavering.
'A message from the Pole. He is delayed.'
'A moment.' There was the sound of a bolt being withdrawn. The door was opened. Maigret went in.
The man was thin, sandy-haired, with a wispy moustache. He wore shirt and trousers, and was wrapped in a blanket. His teeth were chattering.
'Police. Chief-Inspector Maigret.' The man retreated in the direction of the bedroom. 'Your name is Schmidt?'
'I - what do you want?'
'To see your papers. And to know why you are here, in this flat.'
He followed the man into the bedroom. The bed was unmade, a bottle of pills beside it. An official-looking briefcase, with FS lettered on it in gold, stood open on the floor. From a jacket thrown over a chair the man took a German passport, which identified him as Friedrich Schmidt, his profession as diplomat. His name was Schmidt after all!
'All right. What are you doing here?'
'The P-Pole is a friend of mine.'
'Answer the question. Why are you here?' No reply. 'It says "Diplomat" on your passport. What is your post?'
'I was in the Congo. In Africa I picked up this cursed malaria. At present I am third secretary at the Brussels embassy.' Maigret stretched a hand towards the open briefcase. Still with chattering teeth the man said, 'I am a d- diplomat. You have no right to interrogate me. Or to come in here.'
That might be true. Perhaps it was a political matter, one not for him but for the boys in the Rue des Saussaies who were directly responsible to the Ministry of the Interior. Schmidt noticed his hesitation, and said triumphantly, 'Anyway, you wouldn't find anything.'
Maigret stared at him, then left the flat. Downstairs he asked the concierge, 'Where does the Pole go to shop?'
'In the Rue de Seine, just up the road. Sometimes he goes to a baker's nearby in the Rue de Buci.'
'Thanks.' Lapointe, who was leaning against a wall, straightened up. 'What's happened, chief?'
'The man brought something compromising with him. The Pole is getting rid of it, passing it on. Who is coming down?'
'Janvier. Nobody else is free.'
'Send him after me. Rue de Seine, that street market. And Rue de Buci.'
'Can I come too?' He sounded wistful.
'No, stay here. If the little man tries to go into the Pole's apartment, stop him.'
Then mopping his forehead, he set out after the Pole.
He had not gone very far. A couple of hundred yards away Maigret found him, among the hubbub of the Rue de Seine. He was in a horsemeat butcher's engaged in earnest discussion. Maigret remembered talking to the Pole once, when he said that horsemeat was more tender and had more flavour than the finest beef. The butcher, in a striped apron, was showing him different cuts.
Torrence was opposite, standing behind a stall, trying to look like a shopper. Maigret asked whether the Pole had spoken to anybody in the street, or made other calls.
'He has been in a baker's in the Rue de Buci, but only for a moment. He spoke to a couple of people, didn't stop. There he is.'
'Who?'
'The big fellow I told you about.' He was a few yards away, pretending to examine some cheeses, a tough-looking fellow with cap pulled down over one eye.
The Pole made his purchase and came out of the butcher's. He was so tall that he had to stoop beneath the lintel. He must have known he was followed, and now came across to speak to Maigret.
'Good day, Chief-Inspector.' His face, like his body, seemed to be all angles. When he smiled it was as though a knife line crossed his features. In his basket could be seen the meat, a French loaf, a bundle of old newspapers. 'Strange to meet you here.' Maigret said nothing. 'I am a domesticated man, you see, I do the shopping. Sometimes I even cook. My favourite.' He patted the bag containing the horsemeat.
'Is it the favourite of your visitor, M. Schmidt?'
'Unhappily he has a touch of malaria, and can eat nothing. I must get on. I seem to have seen our friend here already.' The Pole, who was a head taller then the bulky Torrence, placed a hand on his shoulder.
They followed him through the crowd of shoppers, Maigret and Torrence and the man in the cap. In a couple of minutes they were joined by Janvier.
'What are we doing, chief?'
'Playing follow my leader,' Maigret growled. He could feel sweat inside his collar. Would it never rain?
The Pole was in no hurry. He exchanged greetings with people in the street, stopped at every stall. Was he dawdling deliberately, making fools of them? At last he arrived at the greengrocer. Fruit was displayed outside and he took an apple, bit it, nodded appreciatively at the man who stood beside him in shirtsleeves. The man put half a dozen into a paper bag. The Pole bought courgettes which went into another bag, bananas, and potatoes which were wrapped in newspaper. All of them were put into the basket by the greengrocer, and the operation was so smoothly done that although Maigret was able to see it all, he did not understand what had happened until he noticed the old newspapers in the greengrocer's hand. Then he called out.
'Just a minute, if you please.'
At these words everybody moved, as though a spring in a piece of clockwork had been released. The shirtsleeved greengrocer made for the back of his shop. Janvier went after him, the man in the cap came forward, and Torrence grappled with him. Only the Pole and Maigret stayed still.
In a few moments it was over. Janvier caught the greengrocer, who did not resist. Maigret delved into the bundle of old papers, and found a large sealed envelope. He growled at the Pole. 'You will all come to headquarters.'
'It is not a matter for you.'
Perhaps that was true. The man in the cap was shouting something about belonging to the Belgian police. But Maigret had had enough. Let them tell their stories, why not? Back in the Rue Jacob, however, he could not see Lapointe. Then the detective came out of the café with the other little man, who was even shorter than Lapointe.
'Chief, this is-'
The man drew himself up. 'I am a consulting detective. The greatest in the world.' He proffered a card which Maigret took. The name meant nothing to him.
'You will come to headquarters and explain yourself.' The Pole was saying that his guest had malaria and should not be moved. 'We'll see about that. Give me your keys.' The Pole meekly did so. 'Lapointe, go and stay with him. Call Dr Chastel, ask if this man Schmidt can be moved, if he can call the hospital. Have him watched.'
'He is a diplomat,' the Pole said.
'I don't care what he is. The rest of you, come back with me.' Part of him was still worrying about the tiff with Madame Maigret.
Back in his office the heat of the stove had died down, which was just as well. He saw the Pole first.
'Now then, no more nonsense, and don't interrupt me. You were doing some kind of deal, disposing of papers brought to you by this man Schmidt. You were the middle man. In the usual course you would have put him in touch with his buyer, sat back and collected your cut. But he was taken ill. Perhaps there was some urgency, perhaps it was just your nervousness about keeping anything compromising in the apartment. You knew the place was being watched, so you arranged that fandango with the Mona Lisa and the Duhamels to get me out of the way while this was passed on.' The bulky envelope, still sealed, lay between them on the table.
The Pole folded his arms. 'I have nothing to say. Except that you'll find it's not your business. Why not call your colleagues in the Rue des Saussaies?'
No doubt it would come to that, but first he was determined to find out what it was all about. But he got nothing more from the Pole. He turned to the detective, and to the man in the cap, whose name was Calas. He interviewed them together.
'Let me tell you what happened as I understand it. M. Calas, your credentials have been checked. You are a member of the Belgian Judicial Police on special assignment.' To the detective he said, 'I confess, I don't understand your position-'
'I was asked by the highest State authority in Belgium to discover the whereabouts of certain missing documents.' The little man put his head on one side, which was a way he had. 'I can give no details, but they come from the Ministry of Defence. It was a simple matter for me, using my little grey cells, to discover that a woman clerk was photographing material and passing it to her lover in the German embassy, Schmidt. Do I make myself clear, M. Maigret?'
'I am a simple police official, but I think I understand. What is not clear to me is why Schmidt came to Paris.'
Calas took up the story. 'Schmidt was not a German agent, but a private operator. He sold the papers, as he had sold others, for money. The material is of interest to several European countries, and he sold to the highest bidder. When he learned that we were on his track he tried to give us the slip, came here and got in touch with the Pole. We'd have collared Schmidt when he came out. You know the Pole, of course?'
'He is an old acquaintance,' Maigret said dryly. He asked the detective, 'And why did you come to Paris? I should have thought your task was finished in Brussels.'
'True, Chief-Inspector. But me, when I am asked to undertake an investigation, I am the lion or the tiger, I do not let go.'
'I wish I could say the same. But political cases, they're not my pigeon. Now, I can't just hand these papers to you. I have first to call my colleagues in the Rue des Saussaies. Protocol must be observed. They'll deal with you, and with M. Schmidt as well. I don't know if you'll want to prosecute him.'
'I doubt it,' said Calas. 'We shall just want him out of Belgium.'
Maigret made the necessary telephone call, and then stood up to say goodbye. The little man, head to one side, a gleam of amusement in his green eyes, said: 'It has been a privilege to meet you, Chief-Inspector, and to see your methods.'
He said to the man, as to others, that he had no methods. He had simply known, by a kind of intuition, that the Mona Lisa was taking him on a wild-goose chase, just as he had understood from Schmidt's manner that the man had got rid of anything compromising he had been carrying.
Well, that was a day's work. His desk was clear. It was time to go home.
When he got outside, it was raining. He was so pleased that he took off his hat and stood with upturned face, letting the drops fall on it. He stopped at a stall, and bought red and yellow roses.
When he got back the table was laid. Madame Maigret was sitting in a chair, reading.
He gave her the roses. She exclaimed with pleasure, and went to find a vase. What was there to eat? He sniffed. It was certainly not haricot mutton. He went out to the kitchen, looked in the oven. Chicken with tarragon, garnished with asparagus tips, one of his favourites. That nodding off in the cinema had been forgiven!
He returned to the living room, rubbing his hands. The book Madame Maigret had been reading lay on the chair. He read the title: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd2. The face that looked up at him from the cover, apparently that of the investigating detective as the artist had imagined it, seemed vaguely familiar, like a caricature of somebody he had met. Who was Roger Ackroyd? But then Madame Maigret served the chicken with tarragon, and he forgot such idle speculations.
1Georges Simenon. Maigret's Boyhood Friend. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1970; New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970.
2 Agatha Christie, London, Collins and New York, Dodd Mead, 1926. A Hercule Poirot mystery.

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