The Yellow Dog
Simenon did not write mystery stories. Many of his novels revolve around a criminal investigation of some kind, but the outcome of that investigation is rarely the point. Indeed, predictability rather than suspense is the most striking feature of Simenon's detective fiction and particularly of the Maigret novels. As early as 1943, the critic Robert Brasillach wrote that Maigret stories unfolded according to rules that were as clear and inflexible as the unities that govern Greek tragedy.1
In some ways this predictability accounts for the success of the Maigret series. Other authors of romans policiers (several of them almost as prolific as Simenon) wrote different kinds of story under numerous (often American-sounding) pseudonyms, and, if any names were to be identified with the great outpouring of such works after the Second World War, they would be the names of publishers and collections Fleuve Noir, Le Masque, Série Noire rather than the names of authors.
Simenon, by contrast, controlled a valuable literary brand that was instantly identifiable and linked to himself (sometimes Maigret books were identified by the portrayal of the commissaire's distinctive broad-shouldered profile or simply a pipe on the spine). Readers looked for 'a Simenon' or 'a Maigret' rather than a particular novel. At a time when most French writers of detective fiction were ruthlessly exploited by publishers, Simenon was confident enough to walk out on the all-powerful Gallimard.
The Yellow Dog is the exception that proves the rule. It lacks the reassuring familiarity of most Maigret stories. It is not simply that Maigret is away from Paris (this is a relatively common occurrence); rather it is that he is away from all the reassuring landmarks that feature in most of his enquiries. There is no reference to Janvier, Torrence and Lucas those loyal subordinates in the Quai des Orfèvres. There is no recollection of Maigret's childhood in the Auvergne (a subject at the centre of L'Affaire Saint-Fiacre or 'Le Témoignage de l'Enfant de Choeur' and that is referred to dozens of times elsewhere) and, most of all, there is no Madame Maigret.
Significant parts of most Maigret stories take place in Maigret's head. One only has to list a few titles (La Colère de Maigret, Maigret se fâche, Maigret a peur, Maigret s'amuse) to realize how much they revolve around Maigret's personality, as well as how formulaic they become. In most of the stories, we learn a great deal about Maigret's emotions, the pleasure that he takes in tiny details of Parisian life and his colossal capacity for nostalgia. The Maigret of The Yellow Dog is a more inscrutable figure and one who is seen almost entirely from the outside. Maigret seems younger, more solitary and tougher than the Maigret that we know from the other novels.
The Yellow Dog broke even with those conventions that had been established by the first Maigret stories compare it with Pietr-le-Letton (also published in 1931), which begins with Maigret poking the battered stove in his office in the Quai des Orfèvres and finishes with Madame Maigret serving glasses of prunelle from her village in Alsace. But its peculiarity is especially apparent now. Modern readers of The Yellow Dog (probably any reader of the book after about 1940) will have the curious sensation that the central character is someone that they thought they knew. Even someone who has never read a Simenon novel will be familiar with Maigret's character from cinema (The Yellow Dog was the first Maigret to be filmed), television or the numerous parodies. Assiduous readers will, by the 1960s, know about Maigret's literary tastes (nineteenth-century novels, especially those of Alexandre Dumas), his liking for hearty Alsatian food (Robert Courtine wrote a book on the 'recipes of Madame Maigret'2), his social origins (grandson of a peasant, son of an estate manager) and his education (school in Nantes, medical studies interrupted by the death of his father).
The strangeness of The Yellow Dog comes partly from the fact that Simenon and Maigret were not yet on the intimate terms that were later to characterize their relations. Indeed during the early 1930s, the relationship between author and hero was a difficult one rather like that between a young woman with high social ambitions and the rich but irredeemably vulgar man who keeps her. Maigret paid the bills, but Simenon suspected that association with detective fiction would prevent him from being recognized as a serious novelist. The author tried to escape from his creation Maigret disappeared for a time in the 1930s before accepting that the commissaire would always claw his way back from Reichenbach Falls.
If The Yellow Dog does not entirely belong to Simenon's usual world, it is rooted, more precisely than most Simenon novels, in historical reality. Generally Simenon ignored history a Martian who based his knowledge of France on the Maigret stories would never hear of Charles de Gaulle and would learn almost nothing about France's experience of the Second World War (Maigret à Vichy is about taking the waters, not Pétainism).
The Yellow Dog is unusual in having a very specific historical context that of the early 1930s. The book is haunted by economic depression which influences everything from the sexual availability of girls from the sardine-canning works to the price of onions exported to England. We also learn something about politics. Simenon's own beliefs were clear. He had grown up in Belgium where nationalism, Catholicism and royalism (the hallmarks of the French extreme right) were taken for granted. He was strongly anti-socialist and sometimes anti-Semitic. He insisted, however, that no reader would be able to discern anything about Maigret's politics. This is not entirely true. In some ways Maigret's very distaste for politics is revealing apoliticism was an important part of French right-wing rhetoric. It is significant that the most squalid figures in The Yellow Dog are closely associated with republican politics the mayor dreams of becoming a senator, the doctor is the son of a deputy. Maigret would not have joined the right-wing demonstrators who, enraged by the dismissal of the Paris prefect of police, tried to storm parliament in February 1934, but one suspects that he would not entirely have disapproved of them either.
Of course, Maigret's conservatism goes with a sympathy for the poor, but oppression is always seen in terms of particular cases rather than in terms of a social system. Often, as in The Yellow Dog, the form of exploitation is sexual, as rich men sleep with poor women (Simenon himself had a long affair with his wife's maid). Maigret intervenes to save particular victims or to punish particular villains, but he has no sense that society might be reformed to make such exploitation impossible. For Simenon and Maigret, political radicalism was just the individual action of dissatisfied (often deranged) men.
There is one curious respect in which The Yellow Dog ignores historical reality. The novel ends on Tuesday, the initial murder having been committed on the Friday. The last day of the enquiry is one of light and optimism. The sun is shining, and flags are flying outside the police barracks. Maigret himself thinks that it feels like 14 July, but it is not: the inquiry finishes on 11 November Armistice Day. A day when, in reality, Concarneau would have been full of bitter men drowning their sorrows and recalling friends lost on the Chemin des Dames. Did Simenon just forget? Given that the author had grown up amidst the privations of German-occupied Belgium, that his only real job had involved running a French league of anciens combattants and that Michoux has talked at length about his own wartime experiences the previous evening, this does seem an unlikely coincidence. Surely, Simenon is, for once, teasing the reader with a real mystery (one that is not elucidated in any of the subsequent stories): what did Jules Maigret do in the Great War?
The Yellow Dog is a great novel. It would be great even without Maigret. You could read it just for the evocation of Concarneau or for the tiny sub-story of Le Glérec's time in America. Emma is the most convincingly drawn female character in any Simenon novel is there a moment when the chaste commissaire, who resisted all temptation when he did his time in the Brigade des Moeurs, takes a more than professional interest in her? The circle of small-town notables is brilliantly described the old money of established provincial families had a particular fascination for Simenon, perhaps because he himself went from being a shop assistant to living in a château in fifteen years. The minor characters are wonderful. Some of them deserve a whole novel to themselves. One wants to know what becomes of Leroy, the innocent junior policeman who is just a few years younger than Simenon would have been when he wrote The Yellow Dog. One wants to know more about the 'more than dubious past' of Madame Servières which makes her unwelcome in the house of respectable ladies. Most of all, the manipulative domineering mother of Dr Michoux exercises a horrible fascination Simenon hated his own mother and ensured that Maigret's mother died in childbirth.
Curiously, because the main part of The Yellow Dog is darker than most Maigret stories, the book has a happy ending. Emma and her lover are finally reconciled, free and expecting a child. More unexpectedly, there is a kind of happy ending for the criminal. The feeble, degenerate failure is filled with energy and courage when defending himself against impossible odds in court (redemption through trial, as in 'Cour d'assises' or 'Les Inconnus dans la maison', is a big Simenon theme). One feels that the shaven-headed prisoner who carries his sack onto the boat that will take him to Devil's Island is, in a strange way, freer than he has ever been before.
1. Like a disconcerting number of Simenon's admirers, Brasillach was sentenced to death at the Liberation.
2. Courtine was also sentenced to death at the Liberation but his sentence was commuted and he survived to become food correspondent of Le Monde.