By the end of the first chapter of The Madman of Bergerac, Inspector Maigret has already spent a sleepless night on a crowded train, jumped off in pursuit of his nervous cabinmate, received a gunshot wound in the left shoulder, and lost consciousness in a forest outside town. He has wakened to find himself in a hospital bed, surrounded by hostile interrogators and mistaken for a murderer. It will take some time before the skeptical prosecutor will admit “that Maigret was indeed Maigret and not the madman of Bergerac!”
Despite these dramatic beginnings, the rest of the novel is marked by near-stasis, an immobility caused by both Maigret’s confinement and the provinciality of life in Bergerac. Yet Simenon manages to energize the plot anyway. How? Through what one might call a structuralist motor, one that works by setting two opposing principles in simultaneous motion.
The first principle is Anti-Enlightenment – a worldview that emphasizes irrationality, uncertainty, and disorder. The Madman of Bergerac replaces the typical mystery’s stable core with a narrative in which (to repurpose both Marx and Marshall Berman) all that is solid melts into air. Instead of formal investigation, we get accident: “It all came about by pure chance!” Instead of comprehensible motives, we get behavior that baffles even the actor, with the Inspector as perplexed as we are about “what instinct had prompted him to jump off the train while his luggage continued on its way to Villefranche-en-Dordogne.” Instead of evidence, we get unbridgeable gaps in knowledge – signs that lie just outside the “halo of moonlight,” memories that collapse into one another. Every detail – bushy eyebrows, a pair of socks, a particular hat – could point to Maigret’s assailant, or to someone glimpsed during his delirium, or to nothing at all. The clues, in other words, seem to be originating within the seeker – a situation that raises the possibility, fatal to the Enlightenment myth, that we are not so much discerning patterns in the world as imposing patterns on the world. (For more on the mystery as the embodiment of the Enlightenment ethos, see my review of The Two-Penny Bar.)
A case so resistant to comprehension inevitably acquires a “nightmare” quality, which may explain why Simenon uses the word three times in the first chapter. The atmosphere of irreality grows especially dense in a strange, striking passage in which Maigret dreams he is a “gleaming black animal,” fat as a seal and awkward as a beached whale, sinking second by second into wet sand. The dream obviously refers to the Inspector’s physical condition – “Why was he so stiff? Had he been wounded by a hunter?” – but also seems to me a figure for a detective out of his depth, mired in a world in which reason and observation no longer take him where he wants to go.
Yet Maigret does solve the case, and for most of the novel his mood is anything but despairing:
There is something intoxicating about having escaped death and convalescing, being coddled, especially in such unreal surroundings.
Credit the second principle, that of Imaginative Creation. All of Simenon’s mysteries suggest that the detective’s work and the writer’s are much the same, but The Madman of Bergerac develops this idea explicitly, with Maigret – thanks to his injuries – as sedentary as a novelist at his desk, forced to rely on a combination of imagination and research to enter into scenes and find “new characters... to bring to life.” He asks others to fetch him reference books, a telephone directory, and “a Michelin guide,” the same kinds of resources that Simenon used to recreate French towns he had never visited. In the tour de force in which Maigret predicts for the amazed spectators the movements of Monsieur Duhourceau, the local inspector, and Rosalie, his omniscience is not divine – simply authorial.
Thus, the rejection of the Enlightenment is offset by the elevation of the artist. Yet Inspector Maigret, bedridden and a stranger to Bergerac, must rely on some decidedly ordinary collaborators in order to exercise his creative “genius.” Most notably, several of the novel’s female characters serve as conduits to experiences Maigret could not otherwise access – for instance, when Madame Beausoleil allows him to “visualize” a scene “as clearly as if he had been present,” or when Madame Maigret (a major presence in this book) describes the discovery of a body in the woods. No one will ever mistake Simenon for a feminist writer, but these interactions offer a refreshing glimpse of the unacknowledged labor that often underlies the achievements of great men.
The Madman of Bergerac is one of the best early Maigrets, a book that undercuts the conventions of the mystery genre while still offering readers a challenging puzzle to solve. Simenon may depart from the model of, say, Agatha Christie or S. S. Van Dine, but he draws on an even more illustrious predecessor – Edgar Allan Poe, the primum mobile of detective fiction, whose tales of C. Auguste Dupin set the whole genre in motion. In “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin emphasizes the limits of mere rationality when it comes to solving crimes and calls on the detective – like the criminal – to be both “poet and mathematician.” Simenon too sees the need for the synthesis of opposites, for the unceasing operation of that structuralist motor.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Selected Tales. Oxford, Oxford UP, 1980.