Oh boy. This is the first of the 70+ Maigret novels that Georges Simenon published over the course of 40 years, beginning in 1931, and it’s perhaps a sign of just how far crime writing has evolved since then that this book was published (in serialized form initially) “as is”: I’m willing to wager that no author writing today would get away with this amount of plot holes, plot elements that don’t even stand up to the most basic level of fact checking, disregard for even rudimentary police procedure, and an emphasis on a(n open! and solitary) pursuit that initially doesn’t seem to accomplish much besides getting a junior officer left behind in the lurch as well as two other people connected with the case killed, and the senior officer engaging in the pursuit seriously wounded, even if not incapacitated to the extent that he immediately has to turn over the case to someone else.
(The good news is: Over the course of the aforementioned 40 years, the plots got better, and Maigret did get to engage in investigations that even from today’s point of view can be taken a bit more seriously.)
It is equally clear, however, that these weren’t the things that Simenon himself was most interested in, to begin with. Rather, even in this first novel, Simenon’s chief interest was in the mind games going on between the detective and the criminal, the hunter and his prey:
“Il serait peut-être exagéré de prétendre que, dans beaucoup d’enquêtes, des relations cordiales naissent entre la police et celui qu’elle est chargée d’acculer aux aveux.
Presque toujours, pourtant, à moins qu’il s’agisse d’une sombre brute, une sorte d’intimité s’établit. Cela tient sans doute à ce que, pendant des semaines, parfois des mois, policier et malfaiteur ne sont préoccupés que l’un de l’autre.
L’enquêteur s’acharne à pénétrer plus avant dans la vie passée du coupable, tente de reconstituer ses pensées, de prévoir ses moindres réflexes.
L’un et l’autre jouent leur peau dans cette partie. Et lorsqu’ils se rencontrent, c’est dans des circonstances assez dramatiques pour faire fondre l’indifférence polie qui, dans la vie de tous les jours, préside aux relations entre hommes.”
(As translated by David Bellos in the 2013 Penguin edition — copied from Google Books:
“It would be an exaggeration to say that in most criminal inquiries cordial relations arise between the police and the person they are trying to corner into a confession. All the same, they almost always become close to some degree (unless the suspect is just a glowering brute). That must be because for weeks and sometimes months on end the police and the suspect do nothing but think about each other
The investigator strives to know all he can about the suspect’s past, seeks to reconstitute his thinking and to foresee his reactions.
Both sides have high stakes in the game. When they sit down to a match, they do so in circumstances that are dramatic enough to strip away the veneer of polite indifference that passes for human relations in everyday life.”)
Again leaving aside the question how true this is actually of every single police investigation, Simenon, in other words, posits the sort of mind games that continue to drive highly charged thrillers even today, from John le Carré’s Spy Who Came in from the Cold to Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses and Bleeding Hearts, the movie Heat (starring Robert de Niro and Al Pacino) and just about every single serial killer plot … and which certainly also factored in Golden Age mysteries involving “great detectives” such as Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, both of whom emphasized the psychological angle of their investigations, and who repeatedly engaged in “mind game” encounters of their own with some of their adversaries (cf., inter alia, The Final Problem and The Mazarin Stone for Holmes, Curtain and The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding for Poirot). — Taking this element as the one that ultimately drives the entire novel, then, Maigret’s open and solitary pursuit of his quarry makes sense at least from the writer’s point of view; and Simenon would go on to explore mind games of this sort not only in many another Maigret novel but also, and even more so, in his “romans durs,” his standalone novels; repeatedly there also from the point of view of the criminal.
That said, the “mind game” angle is only one of several recurring features of Simenon’s writing that is present from this first Maigret novel onward: another is (obviously) Simenon’s rather terse style, and yet another his rather obvious affinity for dingy seaside locations — I swear, there can hardly be any dreary seaport and fishing village on the coasts of Normandy and Brittany (and elsewhere in France, but chiefly on the Channel and North Sea coast) that does not feature, in all its desultory glory, in one Simenon novel or other; rain, fog, smelly harbour and fish market, seedy bars, corruption and a general sense of hopelessness included. By these standards, this novel’s feature rundown Normandy port city of Fécamp is actually getting away lightly, even though we are treated to plenty of rain and November weather, as well as a visit to a shabby bar at the train station.
I read this book for the “Cosmopolitan Crimes” / chapter 23 square of the Detection Club bingo, which actually features a detail taken from the Penguin edition’s cover of this novel, and which summarizes the overal atmosphere — particularly of the early and final chapters — rather well.
Reading Status Update: 117 of 191 Pages:
Well, one thing is obvious: Simenon was writing for an audience that clearly had specific images in their mind whenever a Paris locale was invoked — no need to go into great descriptive and atmospheric detail; mere name-dropping of the location was sufficient. All of which is fine for today’s readers as long as they are at least familiar with the present-day incarnations of these places (and possibly their history), or have seen period images, but which makes the novel somewhat inaccessible if you’ve never been to Paris nor have other ways of evoking the same sense of instant recognition that Simenon’s contemporaneous audience would have had. Which probably goes some way towards explaining (in addition to their several TV adaptations over the decades) why his books are still incredibly popular in Europe — and not merely in France, either — but somewhat less well known elsewhere.
Also, I note that Maigret is another one of the “great detectives” who didn’t age in real time. We’re told at the beginning of “Pietre le Letton” that he is 45 years old in 1931, when this book was published, which would have made for retirement in the early 1950s. Yet le commissaire Maigret was still investigating crimes in the early 1970s …
36 Quai des Orfèvres, the police headquarters of Paris, then and now. There’s a neat blog page (in French) looking at the history of the place. (Note: Linked place names hereafter contain similar links to information found on the web.)
Simenon’s “Majestic” is a luxury hotel in the vein of the Meurice (left) and the Georges V (right) (both photos from Wikipedia). Its interior might well have looked like this:
… and we’re told that it’s on the Champs Elysées, which looked like this then:
Maigret and the man he pursues take the train from, and arrive back in Paris at the Gare St. Lazare:
Maigret then follows his quarry on foot all the way from the Gare St. Lazare across the city centre to the Rue du Roi de Sicile, via Rue du 4 Septembre and Les Halles, which is easily a 50-minute walk. (NB: the police headquarters at 36 Quai des Orfèvres are on the southern bank of Île Notre Dame, just below Sainte Chapelle in the below map, in the direction of Pont Neuf):
Les Halles, the famous “Belly of Paris” epitomized in Émile Zola’s novel of the same name — razed in the 1970s and replaced by a forum, which in turn was replaced by a canopy roof in the 2000s:
The Rue du Roi de Sicile was part of the old Jewish quarter in the Marais:
The Marais (which literally translates as “swamp” — for a [geographical] reason) today is an area of bars and nightclubs, and in the early 2000s used to be one of the centres of the gay scene (don’t know whether that’s still the case).
As Simenon highlights, it is only a few hundred feet from the Rue de Rivoli, next to the Champs Elysées one of the most luxurious shopping miles of Paris — in the 1930s, the contrast between the poverty of the Jewish quarter and the splendour of the Rue de Rivoli must have been staggering:
(Rue de Rivoli, then and now)
The evening of that same day, Maigret follows the American billionaire Mortimer-Levingston and his wife to the (théâtre du) Gymnase on Bd. Bonne Nouvelle (on the above map, the stretch between Bd. Haussmann and Bd. Saint-Martin) where they attend the performance of an opera. (Note: Today’s incarnation of the Gymnase is a cabaret; it’s still in the same building, but the shows presented are entirely different):
Afterwards, the billionaire couple proceed to a dance bar on (or near) the Rue la Fayette (bottom row: the same corner of Rue la Fayette, then and now — photos from CParama / Le Métropolitain de Paris):
Bars in Montmartre, Montparnasse and Saint Germain des Près similar to what Simenon’s Pickwick Bar would probably have been like (photos from various sources):
And, finally, a few images of Fécamp (Normandie), where Maigret follows the man identified as Pietr le Letton at the beginning of the book (right: an early 20th century painting of Fécamp harbour by Robert Antoine Pinchon; both images from Wikipedia):