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The Two-Penny Bar

a review by Andrew Walser

The detective novel relies on a few simple assumptions:

  1. That the individual may attain truth by his own efforts;
  2. That such truth comes through the powers of observation and the exercise of logic;
  3. That logic and empirical evidence have an authority that transcends the authority based on tradition and force;
  4. That this new authority moves the world in the direction of justice.
These four assumptions derive, I think, from the Enlightenment worldview – the combination of science and progressive politics that had become a default position (at least in Europe and the United States) by the time Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle developed the rules of the detective genre.

Are the Maigret novels an embodiment of this Enlightenment myth, or are they a critique? Perhaps a bit of each. This becomes clear in The Two-Penny Bar, a 1932 novel in which the Inspector tries to identify a murderer hidden, six years after the fact, in a group of friends who meet every Sunday at a makeshift tavern near the Seine. We see right away that Maigret does not really resemble a Dupin or a Sherlock Holmes. He works by intuition rather than by logic, waiting for “that nibble, that little shift, the ‘click’ that told him he was on to something” – a flash of intuition triggered not by evidence, but by the “mildness of the evening” or the way a “little white house” looks at dusk.

When analytic logic necessarily takes over – when the givens of the case begin to constrain Maigret’s imagination – he tends to feel let down, “as if he thought it was all falling into place rather too easily.” He wants to prolong the state of not yet knowing indefinitely, to be an inquisitive stranger in a “little world which some event had shaken up.”

As for justice, Maigret seems to prefer criminals to his colleagues. The events in The Two-Penny Bar stem from his visits to a condemned man, Lenoir, whose common sense, confidence, and lack of self-pity have made the Inspector “[take] something of a shine to him.” When the young man mentions that he saw a body dumped in the Seine years earlier, and muses that “There are others who deserve this,” Maigret takes up the case out of curiosity and something like loyalty. Justice appears in his considerations, if at all, mostly in the way he resents – just as Lenoir does – the way the rich and respectable enjoy an unearned freedom from consequences.

For Maigret, detective work is a “bolt-hole,” a place where he can hide from the mundane. Fortunately, he has made his desire to retreat useful to the larger society, just as Simenon made a similar need to escape – to create entire worlds out of guidebooks and maps – useful to millions of readers. Yet such isolation does take its toll. At the end of The Two-Penny Bar, the Inspector feels a “dull, grey despair” – one that only dispels when he makes it to the country and the presence of Madame Maigret.

Simenon, Georges. The Two-Penny Bar. trans. David Watson. London: Penguin, 2014.

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