Monday, July 18, 2022

Simenon's Inspector Maigret

It’s reported that Alfred Hitchcock once telephoned Simenon only to be told that he was incommunicado as he had just begun a new novel. 'That’s all right,' said Hitchcock, 'I’ll wait.' (How Georges Simenon reinvented the detective novel)

In 1931, Georges Simenon (1903-1989) published the first eleven of his still-popular detective novels featuring Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris police. Simenon was an incredibly fast writer! He kept up an amazing writing speed for around 40 years; he wrote 75 Maigret novels, plus many others. Since 2016, Penguin Books has been publishing new translations of the Maigret books, and this week, I read two of these -- they are both rather short and read very quickly. Maigret at the Crossroads is the seventh in the series; The Two-Penny Bar, which has been translated under various other names, is the eleventh. In the past, I've read various others, including some in French.

Maigret at the Crossroads (La Nuit du Carrefour)

Original Cover, 1931.
Maigret is called to a small crossroads location outside Paris, where a mysterious homicide has occurred. The small road through the town is busy night and day with trucks bringing produce to Les Halles, the central market of Paris. I loved the constricted atmosphere of the location with only three houses, and how isolated it was -- including the local busybody. 

Many things are different now than they were then, including produce farming and shipping, truck maintenance, trucker culture, produce delivery to Paris, and many more areas of life and technology that play a role in the stories. One example is telephone service: while investigating in one of the houses, Maigret makes a call on a telephone that has to be cranked. Later, he needs to make another call to summon a police search for a fugitive, but learns that phones in that area do not function between noon and 2:30 PM.  

The Maigret books are famous for food descriptions, and many are here. Madame Maigret, who barely appears in this book, cooks a ragout. There are several mentions of veal escalopes. A few quotes show how Simenon used food and domestic details to set the atmosphere around the suspicious people he was investigating:

"The place was worse than cluttered. It was sordid. A spirit stove encrusted with boiled milk, sauces, grease, on a table covered with a scrap of oilcloth. Tag ends of bread. The remains of an escalope in a frying pan sitting right on the table and dirty dishes in the sink."

"The inn at Avrainville was empty. A zinc counter, a few bottles, a big stove, a small billiard table with rock-hard cushions and torn felt, a dog and cat lying side by side … The proprietor was the waiter; his wife could be seen in the kitchen, cooking escalopes."

At a different inn: "Maigret went into the kitchen, where the innkeeper’s wife was preparing the evening meal. He cut himself a thick hunk of bread, moved on to a terrine of pâté, and asked for a mug of white wine."

Or the behavior of some of the criminals in Paris, described by a witness: "They start drinking champagne, having a gay old time. Then they order crayfish, onion soup, what have you, a real blowout, like those people get up to: yelling, slapping their thighs, belting out a little song now and then …"

Note: the Kindle edition of this book has no page numbers. 

Maigret watches the suspects until he forms a theory about what they were doing and why they killed the person whose body was found at the beginning. It's fascinating to read about how he observes and deducts, as well as to read the minutiae of life in this past time.

The famous director Jean Renoir made Maigret at the Crossroads  into a film in 1932 (IMDB). I don't think it's available to watch now though it would be fun!

The Two-Penny Bar (La Guinguette a deux sous)

Original Cover, 1931.
Maigret and his colleagues are interviewing a condemned man on the day before he is to be executed, and he describes a crime that took place some time ago, which had been unknown to the police. In fact, he had been blackmailing a murderer, who was never suspected. The convict doesn't give much detail: he's just teasing the police, which doesn't surprise them. 

The convict is executed (no details given), and Maigret begins to search for the only specific place or person the convict had mentioned: a bar informally called the two-penny bar. It turns out to be in a weekend entertainment area where upper class people have homes on the Seine around 20 miles from central Paris for weekend gatherings and entertainment. To try to identify the murderer, Maigret joins the set of weekend drinkers and idlers who hang out at this bar, which was in a small white building near the river:

"The bistro was at the back. It was a large lean-to with one wall completely open to the garden. Tables and benches, a bar, a mechanical piano and some Chinese lanterns. Some bargees were drinking at the bar. A girl of about twelve was keeping an eye on the piano, occasionally rewinding it and slipping two sous into the slot. ... The old woman from the bistro waited at the tables herself, anxious that the food was going down well – salami, then an omelette, then rabbit – but no one cared much." (pp 18-19).

Drinking plays a big role in this novel, as Maigret constantly drinks with a person that he expects to be a useful informant, and with the other suspects. He drinks Vouvray, Pernod (a "cloudy aperitif"), brandy, liqueurs, and beer. He's often described as being somewhat drunk, but it doesn't seem to stop his skills at putting together the relationships of all the prospective criminals and obtaining confessions about who was responsible for the murders that he's been investigating throughout the book. 

Electricity hadn't yet reached every house in France. For example, searching for a fugitive, Maigret enters a house in a village:

"‘Could we have some light?’ Maigret asked the old woman. 

"‘I’ll have to see if there’s any oil in the lamp,’ she replied tartly. 

"It turned out that there was. The glass was replaced with a clink, the wick began first to smoke, then to burn with a yellow flame that gradually filled the corners of the room with light. It was quite hot inside the house. A smell of the countryside, of poverty." (pp. 123-124). 

Many details in the novel really highlight how Paris has changed in the past 90 years. The descriptions of the streets, the apartments, and the inhabitants of poorer quarters of Paris is vivid and interesting. I was intrigued by Simenon's descriptions of the Jewish quarter in the Marais district of Paris, where some of the crime takes place. 

Simenon and Antisemitism

The Jewish characters in both the novels I read are stereotyped in offensive ways. Curious about this, I looked up the topic of Simenon and antisemitism. Evidently there are even more severe instances of caricature and racism in his other works. In one recent essay, I read:

"Time and again, Simenon employs stock caricatures of Jews to arouse suspicion and disgust in his readers. One Simenon scholar finds Jews in 13 Maigret novels, an inexplicably high ratio. Two of Maigret’s Jews are murderers. None is sympathetic.

"Simenon has form on the far right. A wartime collaborator with the Nazi occupation, he fled to North America in 1945 and stayed abroad for a decade. In France, a judicial order banned him from publishing for five years. He was, and remains, suspect." (Detecting a nasty side to Maigret, 2013)

A New York Times review of Pierre Assouline's definitive book Simenon: A Biography described how Simenon and his family stayed in Paris after the Nazi occupation:

"Their stay in France lasted through World War II, when Simenon, exhibiting the careless anti-Semitism so deeply ingrained in much of European society, prospered by becoming, Assouline writes, 'not a man of commitment, but an opportunist.' He submitted his novels to German censors, and his films were made in active collaboration with Vichy officials. He became enormously wealthy." (The Maigret Machine, 1997)

I've been reading the Maigret books for a long time, but I don't remember being aware of the author's racist attitudes. Perhaps the books that remained in print before the re-issue of the complete set of 75 Maigret novels were chosen to be the less offensive ones, and perhaps I simply did not pay attention. I definitely see why they've been popular for such a long time despite this deep flaw.

From 1930: a wine ad that to me captures the look of those times.
Shared with Paris in July 2022 -- where lots of people are reading Simenon!

Blog post © 2022 mae sander.


eileeninmd said...

I have not read any of Simenon's books. I will check out my library and see if they have any of these available. I like the wine ad, it is cute.
Take care, enjoy your day and have a happy new week!

Jeanie said...

As I read this, Mae, I had a similar feeling as I did after finishing the Chagall book earlier or thinking of Woody Allen. I love the Maigret books. They're very clever, filled with atmosphere (and good food!), wonderful writing and characters. But I think after reading your post that I don't particularly like or respect the man very much. It's a dilemma, isn't it -- probably made all the more relevant by today's "cancel culture." It's something to ponder. But that said, the mysteries themselves are wonderful pieces of writing (and very fast reads!). Thanks for an excellent review -- and providing the food for thought as well.

Tina said...

I've not read any by this author but you do make it appealing. Love the vintage wine poster.

DVArtist said...

Like I have said before, you read the most interesting books. Have a nice day.

Marie Cloutier said...

the maigret books are so much fun. the racism is unfortunate though. thanks for this fun recap and I love seeing the French covers.

Hena Tayeb said...

I had not heard of any of these before.. thanks for sharing.

Darla said...

It has been a very long time since I read a Simenin book. I think I will revisit his writing. Thanks for the history you provided and the great poster.

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

I must try Maigret again -- I must have read at least a couple of them, but years and years ago. Your descriptions sound so familiar and as soon as I read Hitchcock's quote I absolutely knew immediately that it was because Simenon wrote his books so quickly! But I don't really remember any of the books themselves. Which of course is the thing about many good mystery series. I have read that any Agatha Christy book would be good to take to the proverbial deserted island (if you could only have one book). Because you can read it again a couple of weeks after finishing it as you never do remember who actually "done it." ..... (Of course nowadays we would all have our Kindles and several hundred books as long as we remembered the charging apparatus ;>)

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

There is a television series of Maigret bit I'm not sure if it's based on the books or just the character.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Your post leaves me feeling conflicted. I wish I didn't know about the terrible flaws of those I admire.

My name is Erika. said...

I've got my Mom's collection of Maigret books. I haven't read any in years, but thanks for the reminder to pull one out and read it again. hugs-Erika

Divers and Sundry said...

I've read a few of the books and enjoyed them, and I'm always happy to see another adaptation. Maigret should be better known!

Brona said...

The two penny bar is one of the Maigret's that appears in a number of the 'best of' Maigret lists I've checked out, so I was delighted to see it was one of the ones you read this year.

Your mini-bio of Simenon reminds of the conflict I now feel about Coco Chanel when I read about her dubious activities during WWII as well. She had a lifelong problem about telling the truth, but it sounds like Simenon was more opportunistic and self-interested.