Maigret: The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien

Three books in and I’m starting to detect a pattern. At its center we have men, haunted by demons and drink, who have come to the end of the line. Simenon is the poet-psychologist of disappointment and downward mobility. This one starts off with another such down-at-the-heels fellow, a “desperate soul,” checking in at a cheap hotel and then, “both enraged and overcome by his fate,” blowing his brains out.

An opening act like that wouldn’t seem to introduce much of a mystery, but Maigret feels personally responsible (which he certainly is!) and so decides to investigate further. This gets him into a really improbable back story, apparently having some relation to Simenon’s own youth in Liège and which plays a bit like a Belgian Crime and Punishment. And again one has the sense that the real original sin was a class mixture that didn’t take. Rich and poor are like two different species. When the suicide’s wife comes to see Maigret he notices a resemblance right away: “Not a facial resemblance, no, but a similarity of expression, of social class, so to speak.”

I don’t know where Maigret himself fits in on the class ladder. His father was a bailiff or estate manager. Being a top investigator seems like a pretty big deal, but in 1930s France? Most of his authority comes from the way he physically dominates a room, which is often attributed to his “proletarian” frame or “peasant” stock. I don’t think this is meant to be flattering. He is described here as appearing “bovine” a couple of times, and as seeming like an elephant. In many ways he is a sort of anti-type to the eccentric fictional detective, who is often something of a dandy. Maigret doesn’t speak much, has a face not fully molded out of clay, and either affects or genuinely feels bored a lot of the time (in The Flemish House he’ll let it drop that “when in the presence of a possible culprit, I make a point of acting like an imbecile”). Instead of the thrill of the hunt he has only a weary sense of duty. And yet dramatically it seems to work.

Maigret index

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