When Inspector Maigret arrives in Holland, he finds a “clash between reality and . . . preconceived ideas” – a discrepancy between the “picture-postcard” version of the Netherlands, all tulips and Amsterdam, and the real thing, a “heath-covered wasteland . . . a hundred times more Nordic in character than he had imagined.” At first he delights in this discrepancy, just as his creator delights in describing the strange landscape:
The farm, in the morning sunshine of eleven o’clock, reminded him of his first steps on Dutch soil, the girl in her shiny boots in the modern cowshed, the prim and proper parlour and the teapot in its quilted cosy.
Yet the charm quickly fades. A “rancid air” of hypocrisy and deceit hangs over picturesque Delfzijl, and the murder of Conrad Popinga – which Maigret has been sent, somewhat unofficially, to investigate – comes to seem like a symptom of a more fundamental violence.
Life in Delfzijl is defined by the gap between its comfortable middle-class citizens and the working-class sailors who frequent the port: “The same sky, of heavenly limpidity. But what a frontier between these two worlds!” Like many of the artists and intellectuals of his era, Simeon is inclined to sympathize with anyone but the bourgeoisie. Yet he makes an exception for Popinga, the victim, whose vitality – a tendency to flirt with milkmaids and dance to the jazz on the radio – separates him from the rest of his class. His murder becomes a figure for the destruction of life and liveliness by the powers of respectability.
Maigret’s nemesis in the novel is Professor Duclos – a criminologist, an amateur detective, and the very man the Inspector was sent to defend. The Professor is a respectable theorist, a particularly distasteful combination in this universe. True, the “set of plans and diagrams” that Duclos uses, with “dotted lines drawn on them which must indicate the paths taken by certain persons,” are reminiscent of Simenon’s own compositional practice. Yet, as Alfred Korzybski famously noted, “the map is not the territory.” In his own investigation, Maigret makes sure to actually enter the territory, to recreate the night of the crime in painstaking detail – to reconvene the Professor’s lecture, to walk with the suspects beside the canal, to tune to the radio show to which the dead man danced. The implication is that only through such a method can one discover anything like the truth. The theories of academics are less effective than a kind of imaginative projection, grounded in sensory details and psychology – less effective, in other words, than narrative art.
A few years after solving the crime, Maigret runs into Beetje the milkmaid, the object of Popinga’s dalliance, and is dismayed to find her domesticated, diminished, in the end as “respectable” as everyone else in Delfzijl. You can almost hear his disappointment: This is the future I am safeguarding? This is the order I have restored? It is one last instance of the “clash between reality and . . . preconceived ideas.”
Simenon, Georges. A Crime in Holland. trans. Siân Reynolds. London: Penguin, 2014.