|Most of the year 1940 proved to be a busy time for Simenon, but not in terms of his writing. After writing La Maison du Juge (Maigret in Exile) by the end of January of that year, he produced only three more novels and the start of an autobiography. At the beginning of May he wrote the novel La Veuve Couderc (Ticket of Leave), but during the same month as the Second World War was developing, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg were invaded. Determined to be involved in some way, Simenon travelled to Paris to the Belgian Embassy and soon found himself designated as "High Commissioner for Belgian refugees for the Département of Charente-Inférieure (now Charente-Maritime)" in the south-west of France where he had his home. Simenon still had Belgian citizenship and was to retain it throughout his life.
From the 14th of May to the 9th of August he organised accommodation for thousands of his compatriots arriving in the area, many in their fishing boats as well as overland. In 1946 he wrote the novel Le Clan des Ostendais (The Ostenders) based on this experience. After the Occupation of Belgium was complete, all of the Belgian refugees returned to their country, leaving Simenon to go back to his private life, but the progress of the war moved to nearby La Rochelle and La Pallice and he decided, reluctantly, to leave his home at Neuil-sur-Mer in August and move inland. Storing many of his possessions with a friend, Simenon, his wife Tigy, their young son Marc, and Boule, their housekeeper, travelled inland about fifty kilometres north-east to a farmhouse in the forest of Mervent-Vouvent in the Vendée region, staying there for about two months.
In September he wrote one of his best novels, La Vérité sur Bébé Donge (The Trial of Bébé Donge), before moving again to a house in the town of Fontenay-le-Comte (Vendée) during the autumn.
One day whilst cutting wood, Simenon received a blow on his chest from a branch, which caused him pain, and a local doctor diagnosed, wrongly, heart problems with a short life expectancy. Simenon’s wife, Tigy, observing her husband and consulting another doctor, came to the conclusion that he was suffering from anxiety and nervousness.
From this experience, Simenon, decided to write in the form of a letter to his young son, an autobiography narrating his families’ roots and his own childhood in Liège. Later published as Je me souviens (I remember but not translated) it became the model for his novel Pedigree.
But in the same month of December 1940 Simenon turned to writing another Maigret novel entitled Cécile est morte (Maigret and the Spinster).
As the novel opens Maigret is investigating a Polish gang of criminals with the aid of Lucas and Janvier. Simenon has presented this theme of the Polish gang earlier, firstly in the Maigret short story Stan le Tueur (Stan the Killer) written in the winter of 1937-1938, and then in the non-Maigret novel L’Outlaw (The Outlaw) written in February 1939.
But parallel to this investigation is the repetitive appearance at the Quai des Orfévres of the twenty-eight year old Cécile Pardon who causes Maigret annoyance, embarrassment and to be the butt of some of his colleagues remarks.
But Maigret’s mood, and the atmosphere, changes when he sends for Cécile to be told that she is no longer in the waiting room. Concerned, he travels to where she lives with her aunt.
This turns out to be a typical building found in many parts of cities and large towns with shops on the ground floor and five storeys of apartments above. The dismal building is by itself, having waste ground on either side of it and is situated at Bourg-la-Reine (Haute-de-Seine) about a mile south along the Route Nationale 20 from the Porte d’Orléans exit from Paris.
In the course of a few hours two murder victims are discovered and Maigret goes back and forth to the house at Bourg-la-Reine talking to, and getting to know, the very mixed bunch of tenants, some attracting more of his attention than others.
Simenon has created the atmosphere of the house and its environment, together with the personalities who live there, with appropriate succinctness and sharp observation.
But in spite of all his efforts, Maigret finds himself at an impasse.
The arrival of an American criminologist, Spencer Oats, at the Quai des Orfévres seems to change Maigret’s mood. At the request of the Director of the Police Judiciaire Maigret is requested to allow Oats to observe his methods. Gradually he warms to Spencer Oats, rather using him as a kind of sounding board as he weaves his way through the investigation.
Simenon uses the first part of the main storyline of this novel in a later work. In Cécile est morte it is the young woman who complains that in the flat where she lives someone enters at night and moves things around. In La Folle de Maigret (Maigret and the Madwoman) written in May 1970 it is eighty-six year old Madame Antoine de Caramé who presents herself at the Quai des Orfévres to complain of objects being moved around in her apartment when she is out. The later development of the storyline in both novels is very different.
The English translation of Cécile est morte by Eileen Ellenbogen is close to Simenon’s French text. It was first published in hardback format in 1977 by Hamish Hamilton (UK) and by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (USA).
A section of the map showing the Route Nationale 20 running south from the Porte d’Orléans exit from Paris. To the south of this map below the name Bourg-la-Reine can be seen the Hôtel de Ville (The Town Hall) indicated with an H next to the church of St.-Gilles on the Boulevard Carnot almost at the junction with the N20, where Maigret and Spencer Oats obtained some information. (Map 101 Banlieue de Paris, Michelin, 1992).