Though a boy from the provinces (his father was a rural estate manager), Maigret is as closely identified with Paris as you can imagine, even if he also gets around quite a bit: traveling to the U.S. in Maigret in New York and Maigret at the Coroner’s and England in Maigret’s Revolver. That said, the books I like the best are the more village-cozy ones where he finds himself in some small provincial town having to investigate a crime involving the corrupt or degenerate local big-wigs. Which is where Maigret is Afraid lands us.
Maigret isn’t really afraid. At least he isn’t afraid for himself. His fear is more like concern for the welfare of some particularly vulnerable individuals. He arrives in Fontenay to visit an old friend and immediately finds himself investigating a series of murders. The town, which is understandably on edge, is also deeply polarized along class lines (“Maigret had rarely experienced such cliqueyness”) and the proles have turned against the family living in the grand old manor house that dominates the high street.
That family is, in turn, an extreme example of decadence, their gentility now submerged in shabbiness and possibly insanity. Even the hired help have turned against them, which is less of a surprise given that they (the help) aren’t getting paid.
Speaking of the help, I always like the little nods in books like these to the social protocols of the time. It’s like when you see servants tucking in their upper class masters at bedtime in the novels of Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse. Of course most of this is gone now, and for good reason. For example, why would you even want someone else to run your bath for you, as the hotel chambermaid does here for Maigret? How would they know what temperature you wanted it?
Though it’s a classic set-up, the plot here is a bit nutty, and stays off-focus as Maigret is more concerned with his friend the town magistrate than he is with what’s going on with the slayings. The magistrate’s problem? Madame Maigret thinks it’s the fact that he never married. Is her judgment apt, or is the magistrate just another illustration of men not being able to live with women or without them? The book seems to suggest that you’re damned either way.