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A Man's Head


When Simenon wrote La Tête d'un homme (originally translated as A Battle of Nerves) it was 1930, he was staying at a small hotel in Paris and he was at a turning point in his career. Over a period of five years, using eighteen different pseudonyms (notably 'Georges Sim') he had become one of the most successful authors of pulp fiction in France, publishing up to forty-four titles a year. But Simenon wanted much more than the fame and wealth he had won so quickly as a popular author. From now on he would write under his own name and he would aim for the Nobel Prize. Crime fiction was to be the first step on that road.

In September 1930 he had already completed four of the Maigret series, though none had been published. They were to be launched at a wild party thrown the following February at a nightclub in Montparnasse. Four hundred guests were joined by as many gatecrashers, the cost of the whisky and champagne exceeded Fayard's entire publicity budget and Simenon had to cover the deficit. It was money well spent. Eleven Maigret titles had been published by the end of the year. He wrote four more in 1932, two in 1933 and then, after nineteen titles, sent Inspector Maigret into retirement, intending never to write another. Instead he would concentrate on his romans durs or 'novels of destiny'. But it didn't work out like that. After an interval of six years, with the outbreak of war and a young son to raise in uncertain times, worrying about his health (although he saw no military service), Simenon revived his most popular creation. Over the following thirty-three years he was to write a further fifty-seven Maigrets. And when in February 1972 he finally exhausted his creative impulse and wrote his last novel – the last of 193 'Simenons' – it was a Maigret.

A Man's Head was one of the most successful of the early titles. It was among the first Maigrets to be filmed, it has an effective and unexpected opening scene, and with the character of Radek it provides the casting director with a co-starring male part. For the first time Simenon used a device which he was to use again in The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By, that of a man on the run who spends his time baiting his pursuers. (A second device, committing a murder on behalf of a stranger, would be used by Patricia Highsmith, a strong Simenon fan, in Strangers on a Train.)

Like the other early Maigrets, A Man's Head is notable for the fact that so many of the dominant landmarks of Maigret's France are already in place. Jules Amedée François Maigret (absent-mindedly renamed 'Joseph' in Simenon's eighteenth Maigret title) is already aged forty-five. He is married with no children. He is a very large man. When he stands quite still on his strong legs he resembles une masse inanimée. Sitting on a bar stool he seems to crush it. He is already living in a small appartement on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, a busy but unremarkable street in northern Paris. Madame Maigret is already content to wait for him in the evening, she puts up with his lengthy silences and invariably has some delicious ragoût ready, however late he returns. To his younger colleagues in the headquarters of the Police Judiciaire (CID) on the Quai des Orfèvres, Maigret is already a legend. If he is not stoking the coal stove in his office overlooking the River Seine his idea of a perfect hour is to be snug in the back of a warm taxi, on a rainy day, hidden by his bulky overcoat and the misted taxi windows, smoking his pipe and pondering the case. In A Man's Head he is already breaking the rules; searching a house without a warrant, requisitioning a seedy hotel room, or questioning a prisoner with whom he has no further business. The opening pages depict an audacious piece of rule-breaking, and Simenon overcomes any pedantic objections with his picture of the social comedy among the small cast of characters; a bemused prisoner on death row, a horrified examining magistrate, a surly prison governor and, of course, the attendant 'lifeless hulk'.

The wider setting is equally convincing. Here it is Paris, scene of fifty-nine out of the seventy-six Maigrets, and the district of Montparnasse. By the 1930s Montparnasse was no longer just an artists' quarter. The original population of anarchists, painters, models and prostitutes had been joined and overwhelmed by a second group, rich foreigners wanting to spend a few months enjoying the jazz clubs and la vie bohème. The fashionable bar of La Coupole is foreign territory to Maigret, who always preferred beer and sandwiches to cocktails and a bowl of olives; but it had become home ground for the wealthy young writer of pulp fiction who was transforming himself in that modest hotel room into a very different sort of writer. It is to this sophisticated, international playground of La Coupole that Simenon brings Radek, the brilliant but penniless medical student from Prague who chooses to settle his account with life by sipping café crème and watching Maigret at work.

Simenon was writing in the corrupt world of France's Third Republic; a world where an honest detective was one who bought information rather than sold it, an honest journalist was one who published discreditable facts about politicians rather then using them for blackmail. And there are references to this reality too. To re-open his enquiry Maigret has to intimidate a public prosecutor's office that is unconcerned about a possible miscarriage of justice but deeply concerned about the possibility of it becoming public knowledge. Maigret can impress or bully a humble garçon de café but he has to endure the condescension of the manager of a luxury hotel and face the contempt of a country doctor, likely to be all too well versed in the misery that follows the arrest of a poor man. Maigret is an agent of justice in a brutal world. A man in despair, falsely condemned, tries to kill himself while his persecutor, equally desperate, choses suicide by judicial excecution. In 1930 that execution was still carried out on the street, in central Paris, outside the prison walls.

A Man's Head also bears the mark of Simenon's most original contribution to detective fiction, that is the detection methods used by his hero. As a child in Liège, Simenon had devoured the stories of Arsène Lupin and the great 'Sherlock', and there is a nod in the direction of that tradition. There is even the traditional list of clues, the third-class single rail ticket Paris–St Cloud, the ink traced (in less than a day!) to the bar of La Coupole, the left-handed handwriting of a right-handed man. But these clues are no more than a passing tribute to an outdated convention. When the forensic expert tells Maigret that the writer of the anonymous note to a newspaper is an intellectual who speaks several languages, we can take it that the author is mocking the great tradition of 'Elementary, my dear Watson'. (Simenon had written his first parody of Sherlock Holmes when he was a seventeen-year-old trainee crime reporter in Liège.) Now that he was creating his own fictional detective, literary deduction was to be replaced by a different method – intuition, the intuition, it might be said, of a novelist.

Maigret's problem in A Man's Head is not to identify the killer, it is to link him with the crime. It is in the harsh poverty of the suspect's childhood, in the killer's burning sense of injustice, that Maigret finds his clues. It is because the creator of Maigret had once shared the criminal's temptations that he created a detective who ran his quarry down through understanding. In 1952 Simenon told a sympathetic interviewer, 'I was born in the dark and in the rain but I got away. The crimes I write about are the crimes I would have committed if I had not got away.' This statement was not just the invention of a master publicist. Two of his journalist friends from Liège were to receive life sentences. One, Danse, a convicted blackmailer, went on to commit three murders; the second, Deblauwe, by now an ex-journalist turned pimp, was convicted of a murder committed in Paris in the same year that the first Maigret stories were published.

Simenon always denied that he identified himself with Maigret, but he did once admit that they had a number of points in common. Maigret exemplified Simenon's personal motto, Comprendre et ne pas juger ('To understand without condemning'). He may have looked on the good detective as the bright side of his own personality (the dark side he kept for the romans durs). But in A Man's Head the two worlds meet. The quarry, Radek, is a character quite untypical of a Maigret story, and this is perhaps the only time that Simenon allowed the two sides of his own complex personality to confront each other in one book. The similarities mount up. Radek has been forced by poverty to abandon his medical career; Maigret, we learn later in the series, also failed to attend university, where he would have read medicine. And Maigret, like Simenon, was prevented from taking a university degree by his father's premature death.

Radek, the embittered 'genius', taunts Maigret with a trail of false clues and then with his failure to solve the case. He taunts him with his low wages, his petits bourgeois habits, his lack of genius and his age. And his taunts strike home. With his last words, on his way to the scaffold, Radek even manages to ruin Maigret's breakfast. Radek, created in a bedroom of the peaceful Hotel l'Aiglon, understood human nature as well as Maigret did. This is the kind of criminal Maigret-Simenon would have become had he not 'got away'. While Simenon sat writing in his hotel bedroom his old friend Deblauwe, across the river in the Rue Maubeuge, was spending the earnings of his Spanish whore and calculating how to make the murder of Carlos, a rival gigolo, look like suicide. Given these links, one could read a private significance into the culminating moment of A Man's Head when Radek urges Maigret to make sure that he goes to the guillotine. 'Arrange it for me if you can, inspector ... I think you owe it to me...' he says. Having breathed life into Radek, his evil Other, Simenon wanted to leave him well and truly dead.

Patrick Marnham
, 2003

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