The Saint-Fiacre Affair (1932) is one of the best early Maigrets. As Proust had shown a few years earlier, memory – even feigned memory, even memory that belongs to someone else – gives a depth and intensity to a narrative that mere invention can seldom match. Although barely 50,000 words, The Saint-Fiacre Affair somehow manages to suggest Proust’s seven-volume magnum opus, if only in the way that eddies of lost time keep pulling the protagonist beneath the surface of the story.
Inspector Maigret has returned to Saint-Fiacre, the village of his childhood, where his father worked as the estate manager of the chateau. This position – intermediary between the working people and the gentry – helps to explain a puzzling aspect of Maigret’s personality. Even as he recoils from the bourgeoisie and identifies with the common man, he nonetheless retains a surprising fondness for a certain kind of aristocracy – the kind grounded in behavior, rather than in rank. (Think of his admiration for Sir Walter in The Carter of La Providence.) The relevant aristocrat here is the Countess of Saint-Fiacre, “a young woman who had personified . . . femininity, grace, [and] nobility” for the young Maigret. After an anonymous letter prophesies her death “during first mass on All Souls’ Day,” Maigret is shaken enough to investigate.
Throughout the novel, the past seeps in unpredictably, uncontrollably, often stopping Maigret in his tracks. Waking on a November morning with “frozen fingertips.” The “smell of candles and incense” in church. The curtains in the confessionals, the communion wafers. An oak table with carved lions. His father’s “little office, near the stables.” The “linen maids” and “day labourers” waiting to get paid. The guests at the chateau during hunting season . . .
Yet The Saint-Fiacre Affair is hardly an exercise in nostalgia. Surrounded by the past, Maigret “ache[s], both emotionally and physically.” If the chateau had once “represented everything inaccessible in the world,” it is now all too accessible, with the crass doctor smoking in the Countess’s bedroom and assorted nobodies tramping through the hallways. At the village cemetery, even Maigret’s father’s gravestone is “blackened.” Maigret seems most disturbed by the revelations about the Countess’s descent into libertinism: “And there she was, a batty old lady who kept gigolos!” Is it because she played a formative role in the creation of his own erotic imagination?
Uncharacteristically for Simenon, there is a happy ending to this tale of crime and cowardice. It comes about through the moral resurrection of Maurice Saint-Fiacre, heir to the estate. A scene around a dinner table is one of the more spectacularly tense in Simenon’s oeuvre, and the behavior of the Count leaves even Maigret impressed:
Maigret felt he was in the presence of an irresistible force. Some individuals, at a given point in their lives, experience a moment of plenitude, a moment in which they are somehow elevated above the rest of humanity, and themselves . . . Maurice de Saint-Fiacre was master of the situation, and he was up to the task.
The end of the novel is peaceful and serene. Early in the book, Maigret had questioned and befriended an altar boy whose humble background and sneaky desires reminded him of his youthful self. At the conclusion, he shares a secret smile with Saint-Fiacre – a fellow aristocrat of the spirit, and one who seems to have restored his faith in the superiority of the chateau.
Simenon, Georges. The Saint-Fiacre Affair. trans. Shaun Whiteside. London: Penguin, 2014.