I find that reading Simenon’s Maigret novels produces a pleasantly narcotizing effect, like drowsing in the first strong sunshine of Spring. Sure, there’s been a murder, and often the victim is some hapless soul down on his or her luck, but as regards the investigation, there’s rarely any undue urgency. Life proceeds at its usual measured pace; violence, while present and even menacing, is obliquely alluded to rather than explicitly described. This is not to say that Chief Superintendent Maigret is indifferent – far from it. But his determination is quiet, his manner deliberate. Members of his team – Lucas, Janvier, and the rest – are given their assignments and carry them out conscientiously. They report back to their “chief” and await further instructions. But rarely is anyone forced to work through the night or, God forbid, to miss a meal. Maigret is usually able to go home and have lunch with his wife. (In Donna Leon’s procedurals, Guido Brunetti also heads home to partake of the midday meal en famille – though it is hard to imagine two more dissimilar women than the quietly domestic Madame Maigret and the fiery Paola Brunetti!)
Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard opens with the discovery of a body in a narrow cul-de-sac off the Boulevard Saint-Martin. The identity card found in the victim’s wallet proclaims him to be one Louis Thouret. He has been stabbed in the back, and recently; at the time of its discovery, the body is still warm. Gradually, as the investigation gets under way, Maigret and his team enter into the world of Louis Thouret. Maigret’s first call is on the family, which consists of a wife, a daughter, and several sisters and brothers-in-law. The environment he encounters there is stifling. Madame Thouret is the very emblem of a bourgeois housewife. Dour and humorless – ‘hard as nails!’ as one of the detectives acidly observes – she has never let her husband forget that he hasn’t risen in the world as she would have like him to do. There he was, laboring day after day as an assistant manager at the retail firm of Kaplan et Zanin in the Rue de Bondy. He would head out every weekday morning to catch the same train, and return in the evening, also by the same train… But there’s a problem with this familiar scenario: unbeknown to Madame Thouret and the rest of the family, Kaplan et Zanin had ceased to exist some three years prior. Yet this sudden loss of employment had in no way altered Monsieur Thouret’s daily routine. And he was still, as it were, “bringing home the bacon.”
What gives here? Needless to say, this is where the story gets really interesting. In swift, spare prose, Simenon apprises us of Louis Thouret’s guilty secret, or rather secrets, as there are several that gradually come to light. As more new information comes in, it is examined and analysed during clipped exchanges of dialog. No one makes speeches; everyone beavers away until the truth at last comes to light. I have to say that for me, that truth, as revealed in the novel’s very last pages, was rather anti-climactic. By that time, though, I didn’t really care, as I was genuinely grateful for this delightful escapist entertainment.
In an article in The January 30 2006 issue of The New Statesman, Jason Cowley says of Simenon: “In truth, he is a limited artist, but an interesting one.” I would more or less agree with that assessment – although, maybe I’d modify it a bit: Simenon is limited in some ways but incredibly deft in others; moreover, he can be at times, not just interesting, but downright fascinating. In the Maigret novels, Simenon does not expend much time and energy on description, although he invariably manages to convey a vivid impression of Paris in the mid-twentieth century. The books are likewise short on introspection or philosophizing, but every once in a while, we are allowed into the inner sanctum of the Chief Superintendent’s mind. Interesting thoughts often dwell there. I particularly liked this poignant reflection:
“In the old days he had been particularly struck, even one might say romantically stirred, by the sight of those who, discouraged and defeated, had given up the struggle, being swept along willy-nilly by the great, surging tide of humanity.
Since then, he had come to know many such people, and it was no longer them whom he most admired, but rather those just one step above them on the ladder, who were clean and decent and not in the least picturesque, and who fought day in and day out to keep their heads above water, or to nurture the illusion, or perhaps the faith, that they were alive and that life was worth living.”
Jason Cowley describes Simenon as “grotesquely prolific.” Well, he did write more than 400 books! I have not read any of the crime novels that are not in the Maigret series. Simenon called those his “romans durs” – hard novels. Cowley says these books tend to be more thoughtful than the procedurals, and indeed, I have seen them praised often, especially Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Red Lights, and Dirty Snow. (These titles, and others, have been re-issued in the past several years by New York Review Books, a publishing enterprise whose stellar efforts all book lovers should be grateful for.) Naturally, the romans durs have their place in ever-growing, never-diminishing stack of must-reads…
[ In regards to the passage quoted above: the expression “willy-nilly” always puts me in mind of a quatrain from “The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam.” This bit of poetry doesn’t really have anything to do with Maigret and Simenon – at least, I don’t think it does – but it has haunted me for years:
Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing. ]
For further exploration of the subject of Georges Simenon, see Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. In addition, the increasing number of re-issues of the novels has prompted numerous tributes by reviewers, such as this recent one by Paul Theroux in the Times Literary Supplement. Georges Simenon 1903-1989