Translated by Linda Coverdale
Reviewed by Harriet
What was he doing there? A hundred times, in the middle of an investigation, he’d had the same feeling of helplessness or, rather, futility. He would find himself abruptly plunged into the lives of people he had never met before, and his job was to discover their most intimate secrets. This time, as it happened, it wasn’t even his job. He was the one who had chosen to come, because a teacher had waited for him for hours in the Purgatory at the Police Judiciaire.
Georges Simenon was frighteningly prolific. He was said to be able to write between 60 and 80 pages a day, and, in addition to his 75 Maigret novels, wrote numerous short stories and many pulp fiction books under various pseudonyms. It’s on Maigret that his fame rests, of course, and Penguin Books has nobly undertaken to reprint them all in newly commissioned translations. This one, first published in 1953, is number 44 in the series, and immensely enjoyable it is. We are most accustomed to seeing Maigret in Paris, where he lives and works surrounded by his faithful colleagues, but some of the novels he features in take him out of the city, and give the reader a chance to explore the small towns and villages of France. This is one of them.
It’s the first day of spring, and everyone, the police included, is in a holiday mood. The sun is shining and the air feels surprisingly warm. Coming into the police station at the Quai des Orfevres to start work, Maigret notices an unremarkable, rather unattractive man sitting patiently in the waiting room the police know as Purgatory. He’s been there for some time and shows no sign of leaving. Eventually Maigret discovers that he is Gastin, a schoolmaster from the Charente, a seaside region in Western France, who is suspected of having killed an unpleasant old woman, his neighbour. He’s come to ask the famous detective for help. There’s no evidence that he did the murder, but he and his wife are universally disliked in the village – they are seen as foreigners, having moved there from a different area, so they have been seized upon as responsible. He begs Maigret to come back with him and find the real murderer. Under normal circumstances the detective would say no, but the springlike weather, and memories of holidays by the sea eating mussels and drinking the local white wine, are enough to sway the balance, and soon the two are on the train heading for the village.
Naturally enough things are not the same as in Maigret’s happy memories – mussels are out of season, and the wine is rather coarse and strong (and he drinks far too much of it). Even worse, the sea is not visible from the village. Gastin is soon arrested, and Maigret is left staying in a seedy old inn and trying to make sense of the complicated relationships between the inhabitants, several of whom seem to be permanently drunk.
There are no obvious suspects for the crime, which everyone feels was well deserved and long overdue. However a young boy, son of the local butcher, has given a statement saying he saw Gastin coming out of his garden shed just at the time the murder was committed. It was done with a .22 rifle, a weapon owned by most of the young boys in the village, which makes things difficult.
Maigret interviews people, if they are sober enough, and spends a lot of time talking to the boys, who are mostly aged around 12. He also enjoys watching the old men in the inn, realising they are quite a bit like children themselves, still interacting in the ways they did when they were at school together. Eventually of course he solves the case, and rings Mme Maigret to say he’s catching the afternoon train home. He decides they’ll go and see a film together as soon as possible.
This is a totally charming book. Yes, a murder was committed but honestly the woman was asking for it, and neither the other inhabitants nor the reader is going to feel too sorry. Nothing in the village is going to change, but I guess that’s French villages in the 1950s for you. I live in a French village myself, and everyone seems pretty friendly and well behaved though no doubt there are the usual animosities under the surface.
If by chance you’ve never read any Maigret novels, you’ll be pleased to hear that it doesn’t really matter where in the series you start. If you’re looking for a bit of French nostalgia, and an introduction to Maigret and his methods (which involve a lot of pipe smoking and silent cogitation), this would be as good a place as any to dive in. I can more or less guarantee you’ll want to read some more.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Georges Simenon, Maigret Goes to School, trans. Linda Coverdale (Penguin Classics, 2017). 978-0241297575, 176pp., paperback.
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