An earlier translation called this book Maigret Stonewalled – and stonewalled is about right. The case frustrates Maigret, and the novel frustrates its reader’s expectations, denying him smooth forward progress, a coherent cast of suspects, and a just resolution.
A murder in Sancerre seems bleak and uninteresting to Maigret. The dead man has an unpleasant look, a stuck-up wife in Saint-Fargeau, an aloof and ambitious son – and yet none of them is quite bad enough to hold the Inspector’s attention. Ultimately, it is this very mundanity that pulls him in: “Every criminal case has a feature of its own, one that you identify sooner or later, and it often provides the key to the mystery. He thought that the feature of this one was, surely, its sheer mediocrity”. Yet mediocrity does not necessarily make for scintillating narrative. One might see The Late Monsieur Gallet as both a critique of and an apologia for the exaggeration and romance that underpin most detective fiction. This is everyday crime, the novel seems to say, and everyday crime is a bit drab.
The book itself is anything but dull, and not just thanks to Anthea Bell’s expert translation. The interest lies in the way Maigret cuts through the “fog that distort[s] the view” and brings into focus all that underlies the ordinary. The story he pieces together is as improbable as the wildest fantasy. “Mediocre” Monsieur Gallet has been leading a double life – pretending to work as a salesman for eighteen years, but in fact engaging in petty scams involving elderly royalist sympathizers and being blackmailed by a mysterious figure named Monsieur Jacob. There is also intrigue in Indo-China, a vast inheritance, a bartered birthright... Ultimately, we learn that the victim had rigged up an elaborate mechanism to shoot himself, making it look like homicide so that his wife could collect 300,000 francs in insurance. The solution to the crime is that there is no crime.
The novel ends with Maigret in a furious mood. He senses that poor Gallet has been wronged every step of the way – especially by Tiburce Saint-Hilaire, the nobleman who took over his identity. Even the usual return to Madame Maigret at the end of the case does not ease the Inspector’s mind. It is as if he has seen what “ordinary” success and failure entail, and the revelation makes him nostalgic for extraordinary crime: “’All the same I’d rather have a real murder victim and a real murderer...’”. There is little satisfaction, apparently, in seeing through the crime that is the everyday.
Simenon, Georges. The Late Monsieur Gallet. Trans. Anthea Bell. London: Penguin, 2013.