I know of few novels that create a more vivid sense of place than The Carter of La Providence, the second of the Maigret novels. After carters find a corpse in Dizy, near Lock 14, Inspector Maigret investigates – but not in the manner of most fictional detectives. “He didn’t even try to find what might be called clues,” Simenon tells us, “but rather to absorb the atmosphere, to capture the essence of canal life, which was so different from the world he knew”. Setting, in other words, leads to story. Once again, the method of Maigret overlaps with the method of the writer himself.
The murder of Mary Lampson leads Maigret at first to the Southern Cross, where her husband, a ruined English aristocrat, leads a dissolute life alongside blasé Willy Marco, hot-tempered Madame Negretti, and unflappable Vladimir, a Russian sailor. For much of the case, Maigret feels out of his league – not the last time this sense of unease will appear in the series. The effortless class of Sir Walter, combined with the nonchalance of everyone else on the boat, makes the Inspector feel like a blundering clod – worse, a vulgar clod, one who in frustration “thrust[s] both hands into his pockets with a gesture that was distinctly proletarian, even more proletarian than usual”. Maigret’s self-confidence is shaken by the confluence of class difference and investigative failure, and it takes him a while to reassert his own sense of what distinguishes a man.
His break comes when Madame Negretti, booted off the Southern Cross after Willy Marco too is murdered, spits out the truth – that Sir Walter and Vladimir are chasing down La Providence, the barge that was directly in front of them at Meaux. Maigret’s bike trip from lock to lock allows Simenon to develop his setting still further, as does an interlude at Vitry-le-François, a somewhat less rustic stop than Dizy. There Maigret quickly figures out that Jean – the titular carter – committed the crimes. The solution to the mystery is almost an afterthought. Maigret is mostly interested in the carter’s improbable history, and he is content to let the guilty man perish in peace, unpunished, ministered to by the skipper’s motherly wife.
Quite subtly, the novel emphasizes the value of one particular place – home. Just as Maigret, after solving the case of Pietr the Latvian, could return to Madame Maigret, so Sir Walter and the others had made a home – however unorthodox – aboard the Southern Cross. Similarly, Jean had replaced all he had lost (his job as a doctor, his faithless wife, his freedom) with the stable aboard the barge, his beloved horses, and an unquestioning, unjudging “family.” These households have been jolted and assaulted by the end of The Carter of La Providence, but they remain a point of stability in the flux and flow of the traffic on the canal.
Simenon, Georges. The Carter of La Providence. Trans. David Coward. London: Penguin, 2014.