Maigret and the Informer, translated by William Hobson
Maigret and Monsieur Charles, translated by Ros Schwarz
Review by Basil Ransome-Davies
Simenon was a supercharged writing machine, a prodigious figure whose élan vital drew him to adventure, travel and – in Wikipedia’s genteel idiom – ‘romantic involvement’ with any number of women (often paid). His estimated oeuvre runs to over 400 books under a plurality of names, and Penguin are reissuing the complete 75 novels of the Maigret series, for which they merit applause. It’s a bold and welcome service to crime fiction aficionados. The two under review are the final ones, dating from the early 1970s, freshly translated. They exhibit the maturity of his gift for crafting short crime novels that have both popular and highbrow appeal, accessible to all.
In a Paris Review interview in 1955 Simenon explained his immaculate plain style by citing early rejections of his short stories on the grounds that they were ‘too literary’ – i.e. choked with ornate flourishes. There was only one intelligent response. He dropped the embroidery, and (as aspirant authors are now routinely urged to do in creative-writing courses) ‘murdered his darlings’. The outcome is a rhetoric of short sentences, crisp dialogue and reportage which looks like simple statement but buzzes with between-the-lines meaning. You can find the same powerful latency in other masters of the short story such as Hemingway and Graham Greene. Simenon’s writing is a prime instance of the art that conceals art.
In Maigret and the Informer the Detective Chief Inspector has to investigate the murder of an esteemed Paris restaurateur, Maurice Marcia, enlisting the aid of both Inspector Louis, unshowy but keen-witted and a walking data bank of knowledge about the Pigalle area, and a street-level police informant known as the Flea. It would be going some to call it a thriller. It’s a slow burner. There is moderate suspense, no hi-NRG action sequences, and scarcely any more mystery concerning the killer than there is in an episode of Columbo. Nor is it strictly a police procedural. True, there is due attention to method – a fingerprint here, a search of criminal records there, regular interrogations and tailing of suspects, but mostly Maigret, as tenacious as Columbo, plots his dogged, individualist path between glasses of beer at opportune bars. In dealing with adverse figures such as a youthful widow and two gangster brothers he is frankly confrontational. Inspector Louis, who drinks only Vichy water and unlike Maigret has no domestic life, filters neighbourhood gossip for nuggets of relevance. The Flea is a crucial witness.
Add Madame Maigret, ever the uncomplaining helpmeet, who ensures that her husband has regular meals, creature comforts and periods of indulgent rest when he needs it – though Maigret gets about, he enjoys spells of idleness (‘I’m feeling lazy. It’s lovely,’). It’s a winning team in which Maigret’s alpha-male status is unchallenged, not only as the senior cop from the Quai des Orfèvres HQ but as a personality, a Parisian if not a national treasure. He’s mentioned in newspapers, gets greeted by citizens in the street. Not that he’s overtly charismatic. He sums up in most respects the ordinariness of the middle-aged fonctionnaire, pipe rack and all. But he’s ordinary in a city which is not ordinary at all; its lifestyle and cultural rhythms fit him like an old suit. And he has his idiosyncrasies – the preference for beer (Simenon was Belgian), fantasy games with the pipe rack, a fondness for finding excuses not to go home for lunch – are examples of a quirkish personality who does things his way in a bureaucratic system (a favoured generic motif). He’s generally humane, though like any copper in the world he will bully a witness or suspect to get results. Results are always the lodestar.
Maigret and the Informer ends in a conventional closure. It’s a good, entertaining read with a happy ending, and none the worse for that. The villains, always hidden in plain sight, are arrested, convicted and packed off to jail. The Flea continues to play the grass’s role so vital to police operations and so dangerous to him. Maigret can go home and tuck into a hot dinner. All is well, till the next crime.
But Maigret and Monsieur Charles, the final Maigret novel, offers neither Maigret nor the reader such a comforting finale. The title is rather a tease. ‘Monsieur Charles’ is the nocturnal alias of a wealthy lawyer, Gérard Sabin-Levesque, who gallivants through the Paris nightclubs on regular excursions from the marital home, a luxury apartment. His flings with available club ‘hostesses’ may last a week or more. However this time, exceptionally, he has been missing for a month. The reader only knows him through the testimony of others as he remains an off-page absence till surfacing as a murdered corpse fished out of the Seine. Maigret meanwhile has been directly approached, breaking all protocols, by his alcoholic widow and has personally led the investigation, glad to be out of the office. It helps him scratch an itch.
This is the itch of the senior detective to be a hands-on street cop, not a desk-bound bureaucrat– or so it is with populist crime-fiction heroes. Maigret is at an ultimate career crossroads. Chapter one has opened with his learning from the prefect of police that he is the chosen successor for the imminently retiring head of the Police Judiciaire. The summit of the profession! Naturally Maigret prefers to stick with the Crime Squad, and his own obsessive pursuit of justice proceeds throughout the novel in parallel with the existential meltdown of the brandy-gulping widow.
As a proactive policeman Maigret often has to dive into the Paris demi-monde, visiting bars and hangouts frequented by career criminals like the Mori brothers and a continuous parade of dodgy characters. But Maigret and Monsieur Charles stresses this milieu’s attraction for the rich, respectable bourgeois with a taste for low-life thrills, a largely masculine vice. In this fluid, hedonistic vortex the boundaries of a social hierarchy are relaxed. Yet the fun is always transactional. Like Godard, Simenon offers pimping and prostitution as a critical paradigm of social relations in an unequal economy. What distinguishes this novel is that it traces the cost in authentic human feeling. Sabin-Levesque and his wife lived in the same apartment, but separately, each in a quarantined personal space, despising the other. He went on his jaunts, scattering money everywhere. What was her existence as his ‘bought’ wife, originally a male-servicing club hostess?
It emerges that she has her secret ‘ownlife’ too, but the portrait Simenon gradually uncovers for the reader is of a proud, sad woman dying inwardly from a lack of love. Brandy as a substitute gratification only works for so long. Violence flares and nemesis ensues. The note struck at the end is less of a reassuring victory for justice – not even Maigret fully believes that – than of high tragic melodrama, almost everyone a victim in a catastrophic waste of life. That it’s recounted in a plain, ostensibly neutral style succeeds in making it the more affective. Simenon’s interest in character psychology allows him to create an undertow of emotions repressed, denied, abused or betrayed. This is a noir fiction of the most serious kind, sweetness and light all but absent, Maigret’s generous heart notwithstanding. His final words, the last of a historic series as he delivers his prisoner to the examining magistrate, are spoken ‘morosely’.
Prolific yet not a slave of the writing desk – his daughter testifies to a daily rapid work schedule of three hours in the morning – Simenon is both a writer’s writer and a reader’s writer. Though at his rate of production the quality of output was bound to waver, nothing he wrote is uninteresting and the best is thoughtful and complex fiction by any standard. William Faulkner – not the easiest man to please – declared that Simenon’s work reminded him of Chekhov, a deserved accolade.
Georges Simenon, Maigret and the Informer (Penguin: London, 2019). 978-0-241-30436-5, 165pp., paperback.
Georges Simenon, Maigret and Monsieur Charles (Penguin: London, 2019), 978-0-241-30441-9, 160pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)