Meanings tend to accrete to both objects and words, with little concern for strict denotation or even logic. The phenomenon explains how art gets its power and how social hysteria gets out of hand.
Early in The Yellow Dog, the sixth novel in the Maigret series, Mostaugen the wine dealer is shot dead on the streets of Concarneau. The doctor, the police, the curious citizens gather around – and the eponymous yellow dog, unknown and somehow uncanny, “circles among the many legs.” The dog becomes a figure for the “pale shadow of fear” that spreads over the town, particularly after Inspector Maigret discovers grains of strychnine in the bottles of Pernod and calvados at a local café. The newspaper runs sensationalistic stories about how the animal “reappears with each new misfortune,” and Dr. Michoux, one of the targets of that poison, tells an implausible tale about how a fortune-teller warned him – like a seer alerting Caesar – to “Beware of yellow dogs!” One suspects that, if a butterfly or a chunk of dolomite had appeared at each crime scene, the same hysteria would have attached to a different object.
Thus, the yellow dog is a red herring – but not entirely. It belongs to Léon, a sailor sentenced to Sing Sing for his unwitting part in a plot to smuggle cocaine into the United States. When León finally returns to Concarneau, the dog – a puppy when he left port – accompanies him, a final sad connection to his old life. But for the men who betrayed him, the dog is something darker – more like one of the hellhounds of Supernatural, or that beast chasing the bus in Cesar Aira’s “The Dog.” It represents the terrifying possibility of retribution, the sudden appearance of the past where you least expect it.
A young inspector working his first case assists Maigret in the investigation. Leroy believes in fingerprints, the chemical analysis of cigarette ashes, a relentless attention to “evidence” – that is, to the details that obviously relate to the matter at hand. Yet Maigret would rather keep track of seemingly inconsequential details – Michoux’s mother is a “schemer . . . trading on [her] dead husband’s name,” Le Pommeret has “affairs with working girls” – and soak up atmosphere:
“[W]e’re immersing ourselves in small-town life. And it’s like it’s always been! Knowing whether Le Pommeret wore ready-made or custom-made shoes – that may not seem like much. But, believe it or not, that’s the key to the story right there . . .”
The most striking aspect of this unmethodical method is the Inspector’s immediate fixation on Emma, the barmaid at the cafe. Why? What is the criminological justification? Simply put, Maigret wants her – he sexually desires her. And so he finds excuses to grab her narrow shoulders and to watch from across the way as she embraces Léon, who had been her fiancé before his mysterious disappearance. While Leroy tries to puzzle out how the poisoner acquired the strychnine, Maigret has other things on his mind: “What do you think of Emma? . . . Would you, for instance, be interested in making love to her?” Gossip and lust become the paths to truth.
In the end, we learn that Madame Michoux was mixed up in her son’s scheme, and Emma did belong at the center of the case. Eros trumps logos and intuition beats rigor. Dr. Michoux gets shipped to Devil’s Island – a clever Dantean contrapasso – and Emma is reunited with the object of her desire. The conclusion of the book is unexpectedly cheerful: the yellow dog of fear is far away.
Simenon, Georges. The Yellow Dog. trans. Linda Asher. London: Penguin, 2013.