Maigret is not exactly a round character. He does not “change” or “grow” the way creative writing teachers insist a compelling character must; he never has an epiphany, and the experiences he has in one book are usually utterly forgotten by the time we get to the next. No, Maigret is always self-identical, in the manner of heroes and villains or gods and monsters. Always the same pipe, always the same hat, always the same impassive and imperturbable manner. An actor who plays him – whether he is Jean Gabin, Michael Gambon, Bruno Cremer, or Rowan Atkinson – may be tempted to slip into these traits as if he were donning a cape to play Dracula.
In The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, the minimal development of Maigret – or what we might now redescribe as the efficiency of his characterization – is used to striking effect. For much of the book, Maigret is conspicuously absent. Yet we know he is near. He must be the stranger in the “bowler hat” who enters the nightclub in the opening scene; he must be the “man with the broad shoulders” who appears so often – and so hauntingly – on the periphery of events. Unnamed and unrecognized, Maigret is the mystery here. Even the Belgian police begin to suspect he may be guilty of the murder at the Gai-Moulin, and the papers in Liege all wonder: “Where is the man with broad shoulders?” What was he doing at the club that night? Why does he not come forward?
In the near-absence of Maigret, the book zeroes in on two teenagers, Delfosse and Chabot, who, robbing the club after closing time, are stunned to find a corpse in the middle of the dance floor. We immediately empathize more with the younger of the two, Chabot, and see in his relation to the older boy a familiar dynamic, reminiscent of Leopold and Loeb or, much later, Harris and Klebold – one in which a strong psychopath dominates and leads astray his weaker companion. Chabot senses that, by hiding in the cellar of the Gai-Moulin, he and Delfosse have crossed a terrifying line. He is horrified by a life so sordid, so dangerous, so low. The dread and guilt he feels make him too nauseated to eat his mother’s cooking, and he is still juvenile enough to imagine his pursuer as an “unknown man pacing the street, just in front of the school he had attended as a child.”
When he does appear, Maigret functions as a kind of deus ex machina – or, more accurately, an auctor ex machina. A plot always seems to move by its own volition in the early stages, but as things come closer to resolution – as the strands of narrative converge, and the themes begin to bend toward a desired outcome – the writer’s hand inevitably becomes more visible. Here the process is done mostly in fun, as we (and the Belgian police) learn just how much Maigret really intervened in the case: “‘Yes, all right, I cheated! I didn’t tell you at once all I knew.’” Even the title of the book is a piece of legerdemain, since the Adele in The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin is considerably less important than the Adele in The Grand Banks Café.
The eventual salvation of Chabot involves two ironies. The first is his posting in the Congo – a location that would have been well known to European readers of the time as a criminal enterprise in its own right, the site of unspeakable atrocities under King Leopold II and the Congo Free State. If Delfosse was a bad influence, surely a corporation only a generation from genocide is even worse.
The second concerns the source of much of the public’s knowledge of those atrocities – a bestselling book called The Crime of the Congo.
Its author? Arthur Conan Doyle.
Simenon, Georges. The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin. trans. Siân Reynolds. London: Penguin, 2014.