Certain lines jump out of literary texts, as if they were hidden messages from the author’s unconscious, hints on how to understand the work beyond the writer’s own comprehension. In The Shadow Puppet, such a line appears relatively early in the book, in the middle of an otherwise unexceptional description of an apartment building: “There are impressions that cannot be explained: something felt wrong, something that emanated from the facade itself.”
The line refers literally to the Places des Vosges, where Inspector Maigret has gone to investigate the murder of Couchet, the wealthy owner of what the narrative calls a “serum factory.” In this quiet, conventional locale, Maigret discovers an intricate family drama and a homicidal nihilism behind the closed blinds.
The early pages of this novel are all about imperfect concealment, about information leaking through and unsettling the recipient, as at a puppet show that has been shabbily staged. When Maigret first arrives to investigate the crime, he finds a kind of shadow world, without “proper lighting,” so that the lives inside the apartments remain disturbingly ill-defined, resistant to even the most general speculation. The dead body itself is a blurry shape behind “frosted-glass panes”; it resembles a “Chinese shadow puppet,” a phrase that gives the book its French title, L’ombre Chinoise.
Yet the phrase “something felt wrong” also points to a more general condition – a malaise that underlies not just bourgeois existence in all its “syrupy greyness,” but also existence itself, as if the universe were a “facade” behind which something unpleasant lurked.
The idea of an absurd cosmos was in the air in the Thirties, particularly in the Francophonic world. (Both Camus and Sartre published their first works later in the decade.) Critics have tended to pay more attention to the philosophical underpinnings of Simenon’s romans durs – works like Dirty Snow and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By – but I would suggest that existentialism is relevant to the Maigret novels as well. What “emanate[s] from the facade” in these books is the knowledge that there is only facade – that all of these “comical gesticulating shadow[s]” have no puppet-master to pull their strings. In this context, the behavior of Maigret – his patient immersion in the mundane, his resolute refusal to invent invisible motives – becomes a kind of replacement for metaphysics, a way to find meaning amid “all this day-to-day unpleasantness.”
In The Shadow Puppet, and in the other seventy-four novels in which he figures as protagonist, Maigret shows us something important behind his facade – what it means to be “good” in a world where the category is as shadowy as the courtyard of the Places des Vosges.
Simenon, Georges. The Shadow Puppet. trans. Ros Schwartz. London: Penguin, 2014.