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The Misty Harbor

a review by Andrew Walser

Like most mysteries, The Misty Harbor is all about uncertainty and resolution.

A “milky mist” has descended on Ouistreham, a port town in lower Normandy. This “wall of fog” is literal, but it also has several metaphorical analogues – the memory of the harbormaster, Captain Joris, for instance, who was discovered wandering through Paris with severe amnesia and a bullet hole in his head, and the perplexity of the people in town, none of whom can imagine why the man had gone missing for a month or what might have happened in the interval.

At first Maigret too can only guess at what the fog hides – whether the “teeming mysterious life” that carries on around him is “sinister” or benign or simply alien. A sense of “nebulous danger” has engulfed Ouistreham and, like a real fog, radically isolates each person there: “Because they were afraid! All of them! Martineau, the woman, the mayor... It was as if each of them were alone with that fear... Each one afraid in a different way!”

After someone finally manages to kill Joris, the patrons of the local tavern react in irrational ways, spinning stories and trying to dispel the fog through “sheer imagination” – through the combined powers of rumor, resentment, and conspiracy. Only Maigret keeps his cool. His habits of mind allow him to think his way into the mystery and “to piece together his scattered clues floating in a formless mass.” This leads to a book rich in figures for revelation – a cat brushing one’s leg in the fog, the morning light “inadvertently revealing” the real condition of Joris’s house, the “dreamlike tableau” of Ouistreham appearing outside the window of the bedroom in which the harbormaster lies dying.

The entire process – the initial fog, the gradual clarification, the sudden epiphanic breakthroughs – should remind us once again how much Maigret resembles a writer. People “take over his life... for days, weeks, months,” and he can only wonder – as Simenon must have at the start of each novel – “Would this investigation be challenging or dull? Thankless and demoralizing, or painfully tragic?” Both Maigret and Simenon may “hate... the first steps,” but they also both make the journey from words to truth, from a simulacrum constructed out of secondhand reports – maps, guidebooks, news stories – to some sense of what a place really is.

They seek a story like the one Julie the housekeeper tells – a tale of “frank simplicity” with the “troubling ring of truth.” In this context, the dispersal of the fog means the attainment not of justice or theoretical insight, but of a particular kind of concrete knowledge. Such concreteness does not mean the novels are all surface – merely that they live up to William Carlos Williams’s famous dictum, “No ideas but in things.”

In the end, it is the rich particularity of the prose that makes The Misty Harbor one of the most memorable Maigrets. Locks, harbors, and crossroads always seem to bring out the best in this writer. The new Penguin edition has the added advantage of Linda Coverdale’s translation, which renders Simenon’s narrative into a subtle and efficient English. Look, for instance, at the way she weaves together the hard k sounds, the long i, and the explosive p’s in this passage:

The steady humming of the fire gradually joined with the tick-tock of the pendulum clock into a kind of music. Safe from the chilly winds outside, their cheeks grew pink, and their eyes shone brightly. And the pungent aroma of calvados perfumed the air

Few readers will be conscious of this music, but it gives pleasure nonetheless. More important, it creates a sense of order that the unconscious mind perceives and takes as a promise that some kind of truth lies within the flow of words. This is the way of all “atmosphere” – it is that which we do not notice, but which we inevitably feel.

Simenon, Georges. The Misty Harbor. trans. Linda Coverdale. London: Penguin, 2015.

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