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A Man’s Head

a review by Andrew Walser

Any writer – not just the author of detective fictions – must lure the reader in with some pressing question, then replace that mystery, again and again, as long as the structure will bear it, with newer and deeper mysteries.

As in The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, the narrative of A Man’s Head starts in medias res, and once again Maigret acts as a kind of prime mover – arranging a jailbreak, letting a dimwitted convict escape in the hopes that he will somehow lead the police to the real murderer of a rich American widow and her maid. When Coméliau, the examining magistrate, disapproves of the plan, the Inspector sharply rebukes him: “’And is a man’s head not worth a touch of scandal?’”

The central figure in the novel is a mysterious redheaded Slav, bedraggled and a bit mischievous, who appears in the Coupole bar and, despite having no apparent connection to the case, begins to taunt Maigret:

“If you understand nothing, and I mean zero, it’s because from the very start you’ve been working with facts which had been falsified. And once that is conceded, everything that has flowed from them is false too, no? And everything you will discover will also be false, and so on all down the line.”

Logic is not enough, in other words. Even the most airtight syllogism will lead to falsehood if you do not start from the right premises. And the “facts” themselves are always elusive and unstable, as A Man’s Head makes clear. We eventually learn that the Slav, whose name is Radek, has orchestrated everything: “’He took satisfaction in pulling the wool over my eyes . . . He made up things to confuse me . . . He proceeded to multiply the false leads . . . He had constructed an image for himself as all-powerful, a demi-god.” Radek is to the Inspector as Georges Simenon is to both his hero and the reader. The author (and by implication the deity) becomes a counterweight to logic, a way to inject uncertainty into a case to prevent the solution from becoming inevitable.

In the end, it is hard to say whether this artist of murder defeats or is defeated by the Inspector. On the one hand, Maigret does outwit his adversary and, through some clever stagecraft of his own, lure him into a decidedly inartistic act of violence. On the other hand, Radek’s insistence on grand gestures and ambitious plans does ultimately seem to judge the stolid Inspector. When he mocks Maigret, it sounds like Simenon – who was not even thirty when the first Maigrets appeared – taunting the bourgeois he might become. Fortunately, the young writer had much more than the “mild attack of genius” that Radek sees in Maigret, and this brilliant novel is one of the more enjoyable symptoms.

Simenon, Georges. A Man’s Head. Trans. David Coward. London: Penguin, 2014.

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