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Archive for the ‘Simenon, Georges’ Category

Nicaraguan stamp showing Maigret lighting his pipe
Inspector Maigret lighting his pipe on a Nicaraguan stamp, one of a series depicting famous fictional detectives; others in the series included Lord Peter Wimsey, Nero Wolfe, and Father Brown.

Considering my fondness for detective novels, I am mildly ashamed to say that I’ve never given Simenon and his creation, Maigret, as much time as they probably deserve. In part because, even though there are dozens of books featuring Maigret, they’re not particularly easy to get hold of. And, in part, because I always found Simenon drier, less engaging than other detective novelists I enjoy.

Maigret’s Pipe is a selection of 17 short stories; I picked it up in Bombay, out of the towering stacks at the dusty, musty New and Secondhand Bookshop, sometime last October. It got read in stages; some in October, some in December, the rest this February. Perhaps a good way to read Simenon’s short stories, spreading them out a bit.

I had some problems getting into the swing of reading, once again; this time, I know it was because of the way the dialogue was punctuated. Too many ellipses and exclamation marks can really cause problems–the ellipses gave me a curious sense of the characters talking to themselves, not each other, disengaged from what was happening around them. And then the exclamation marks made it all seem too staccato. Which is not to say the stories were not engrossing–they were, for reasons I discuss below. But they weren’t the easiest of reads, for all that Simenon was and still is a “popular writer.”

But, in the course of reading these stories, I began to understand that Maigret has never entirely appealed because I am wary of him. He is brusque and free from pretensions to politeness, patient only in that he will hold out long enough to get information out of a suspect–as befits a character in a series of institutional interactions presented fitfully, so jerkily, as those exclamation marks seem to underline. As such, I don’t think I’d ever want to be interrogated by him; he’s not above anything, locking himself up in a room with a young girl for hours in one of these stories, and keeping a set of suspects in the room with the corpse of a murdered man in another, even when they complain of the smell. Gentility is not for the police, not in Maigret’s world.You’d want to make sure you’d be found innocent as soon as possible.

As for the suspects–unlike those in many detective novels, they never really gain the sympathy of Maigret or get admitted into his confidence. They are the focus of his attention, until they are proved innocent, after which they are tossed out onto the rubbish heap composed of those the police are not interested in at all. They are not his friends. They won’t be. It’s not wonder they talk hesitatingly, as if they talk to themselves, almost as if they can’t meet the eyes of this embodiment of impartial justice. What a contrast to Wimsey and Harriet Vine, or Holmes and Irene Adler, or Inspector Morse and a series of women, or Albert Campion and his friends in the criminal world. And you don’t even have the comfort of emotional insight into Maigret, as you do with Adam Dalgliesh, to make him seem more approachable.

So these aren’t cosy stories. You read them not for precision of plotting and puzzle, either, but for a black-and-white, realist, strictly unbiased treatment of the solid structure of the detective story–crime, investigation, solution. But in his bare-bones, quick, but startlingly vivid sketches of characters and place and social situation and dynamics, Simenon presents us with a finely realised world, one of modernity and alienation and cynicism. There are few comforts–his people are mostly working class, or middle class, ordinary, and even if they have outstanding intelligence or beauty or wealth, they are never permitted to be more than people in the crowd of suspects. They are always real, sometimes sordid in their deeds and ways–the story The Three Daughters of the Lawyer stays with me for its slow stripping away of bourgeois value of various sorts, to expose something ultimately wretched and miserable. And Simenon’s one interest is not to pass judgement on his characters, but rather to let Maigret discover the thread of action and speech and behaviour that has led to a crime and away from it to its perpetrator. Varied are these threads in their patterns and their paths, ingenious yet perfectly believable and real in these stories.

Maigret’s investigations rely on intuition and on his close observation and interpretation of what people do and say and how they live. Nothing within his powers is permitted to distract him from his goal; he is steadfastly, unshakably objective in his search. There are no redemptions here, no happy endings, no allowance for human relationships to form out of this crucial seeking for the truth of how one human being has done injustice to another. There is only the struggle to work the mills of justice. Reading these stories, I remain wary of the uncompromising Inspector Maigret, but there is no doubt about it–I respect him most deeply.

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