Simenon wrote the early Maigrets at an astonishing clip, and by the ninth book – published, like the first eight, in 1931 – he has already begun to revisit familiar scenes and themes. In The Grand Banks Café, the investigation once again centers on a café, as in The Yellow Dog, while the mystery once again involves fishermen and Fécamp, as in Pietr the Latvian. Such repetitions should not be taken as a sign of literary exhaustion. Like Shakespeare – another popular artist who combined great productivity and high literary quality – Simenon is confident that each return will also be a first visit, with new motives to plumb and new vantages to explore.
The Grand Banks serves the sailors who work fishing for cod off the coast of Newfoundland. The milieu is overwhelmingly male, and misfortune and death are constant threats. Yet, even in this environment, the murder of the captain of the Océan seems extraordinary, an indication that something uncanny must have happened on the trawler’s last voyage. When the ship’s bookkeeper, a young man named Pierre Le Clinche, is charged with the crime, the air of dread in the town only intensifies.
Maigret enters a case marked by sex, secrecy, and “rage.” The constellation first appears when the café’s landlord shows the Inspector a photograph he found in Le Clinche’s room – a picture of a woman, voluptuous and attractive, but with her head “scribbled all over in red ink.” The image suggests both erotic obsession and misogynistic fury: “The pen had bitten into the paper. There were so many criss-crossed lines that not a single square millimetre had been left visible.” The desire to possess and the desire to destroy are disturbingly proximate.
They will remain close throughout the novel. Pierre’s fiancée Marie – a charmingly Gallic Nancy Drew – starts her own investigation and discovers, underneath the bed in the Captain’s cabin, a hiding place, with the words “Gaston – Octave – Pierre – Hen . . .” etched obsessively into the wall, a kind of clandestine sexual inventory. The etcher’s name is Adèle, and even the Inspector finds her “seductive, desirable in the full bloom of her animal presence, magnificent in her sensuality.” She is the most obvious cause of the discord on the ship – the reason
three men [the Captain, Pierre, and the mechanic Laberge] had circled for days, for weeks on end, far away in the middle of the ocean, while other crewmen in the engine room and in the foredeck dimly sensed that a tragedy was unfolding . . . and talked of the evil eye and madness.
The tendency to make women the focus of all desire, as well as the corresponding tendency to blame women for the uncontrollability of that desire, is a constant over three thousand years of Western literature. (Perhaps I should say Western culture – and not just Western.) Simenon seems aware that this is a masculine rationalization. He makes sure that the underlying crime – the one of which the Captain’s murder was a mere symptom – has little to do with anyone’s “animal presence,” no matter what the sailors believe.
In the end, the revelation of Le Clinche’s desire to hear Adèle call him “my big boy” comes across almost as a mockery of Freud – one as outrageous as that scene in Blue Velvet where Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini reenact the family triangle with the aid of a blue robe, amyl nitrate, and scissors. Simenon is not as dark and strange as David Lynch, but he has the same keen sense of the secrets buried beneath the normal, and of how their uncovering is a surprise each time it recurs.
Simenon, Georges. The Grand Banks Café. trans. David Coward. London: Penguin, 2014.