Georges Simenon wrote something like 1,000 short stories and 220 novels, 75 or so of which were official “Maigret” mysteries (bibliographers disagree). “Wrote” sounds too deliberate: “spit them out” gets closer to the spirit of it. But they don’t FEEL spit out, not exactly; it’s more like they’re not belabored. Sometimes details stand in for big pictures; sometimes broad impressionistic splashes substitute for details. The novels were written quickly, and they’re meant to be read quickly, (one sitting will usually do.)
Commissaire Jules Maigret formally debuted (trademark overcoat, pipe in mouth, beer at hand, Madame Maigret fretting in the background) in 1931’s “Pietr-Le-Letton” (“Peter the Latvian.”) There would be TEN other Maigret novels published in 1931 alone. I’ve read about a dozen over the years, but just got my hands on a complete set of Spanish translations, and went to the beginning. They’re not the kind of novels one necessarily remembers as separate entities, anyway, but rather like variations on a favorite tune: “Maigret doggedly pursues a killer” competently summarizes them all, but the little touches make all the difference.
Pietr-Le-Letton is a famous counterfeiter cutting a criminal swath through Europe, but La Surete is aware, and Maigret is waiting to intercept Pietr at the Parisian train station. Pietr descends from the train, walks past Maigret… and yet minutes later Pietr’s corpse is found STILL INSIDE THE TRAIN. Whodunits of the time would have centered on that potential head-scratcher of a puzzle, but Simenon’s interests lay with the whydunit.
There IS, I can’t help but point out, a weird racist element in Maigret’s encounter here with a Jewish woman. It’s uncomfortable, looking back from the 21st century, to see how pervasive anti-Semitic feeling was throughout 1930s Europe. It was hardly a German phenomenon. The scene in which Simenon comments on how different race types emit different smells, (and Jewish people stink up things), is malodorous indeed.
AAAAAND here’s a wily, greedy Jewish guy getting killed in “The Crime of Maigret” (or “The Hanging Man of Saint-Pholien”.) Maybe I’m reading too much into it! I wish this book had been written in 1951, instead of 1931, because it unintentionally doubles as a prescient, brilliant WWII parable. To point out why would involve spoilers, so I won’t do it, and in fact will say no more, except that this one is highly recommended for Simenon readers because at the very beginning, Maigret basically pranks a nervous man into committing suicide. OOOPS!
Not to say that the Maigret novels are “cozies,” but they fell by Simenon’s own description under the label of “romans populaires” (popular novels). “The Murderer,” from 1935, is one of Simenon’s 110 “romans durs” (“hard novels”) The “romans durs” are more overtly psychological in their approach to criminality, more “adult,” little noir gems that sparkle darkly with a cynical wisdom, in the same mind-set of a Patricia Highsmith novel. “The Murderer” is the Dutch story of Hans Kuperus, a bland-beyond-description physician who learns his wife is sleeping with a much-hated “friend”. Hans deliberately tracks the couple down, kills them, and, feeling both exhilarated by the act and doomed to life in prison, decides to enjoy the rest of his free time by undoing the shackles of his bourgeois life!
So he boinks the maid.
What happens next illustrates Simenon’s fatalistic belief that, no matter what startling thing people might do, they are always essentially trapped by a lifetime of habits.
RATING: MASTERPIECE!!! for “The Murderer,” COOL! for the Maigrets. Except for all the suspicious comments about the, er, children of Israel…