Maigret: Maigret and the Headless Corpse

Right near the start of Maigret and the Headless Corpse a canal-side scene is drawn wherein “everything seemed as bright and clear as a painting by Utrillo.” I’m not the best-informed fellow when it comes to art history and pulled a blank on this name. I looked it up and Utrillo is Maurice Utrillo, who actually died in 1955, the year this book was first published. I don’t know if Simenon slipped his name in as an homage. I looked at some of Utrillo’s paintings online and while there were a number of cityscapes the sky always seemed slightly overcast.

I wonder how many people reading this book at the time it came out would have known what sort of an image was being drawn. Were readers of Maigret novels the same people as would be familiar with Utrillo paintings? I don’t know. Is it a connection Maigret himself would have been likely to make? Probably not. This is part of what made me think it could have been meant as an homage.

The whole first chapter here is brilliant, taking us through the discovery of the headless corpse in a manner that underlines the automatic nature of the process, with the one out-of-the-ordinary fact of the case (it’s a man’s arm) being flagged by everyone along the way. Simenon’s usual economy is perfectly employed. I was smiling with the turn of every page.

The rest of the book is almost as good. After the clutter of Maigret and the Minister Simenon seems to have wanted to pare everything down to the bare essentials this time. Just a corpse (they never do find the head) and a few suspects. One of these is the bistro owner Aline Calas, who is Maigret’s chief antagonist. “They were evenly matched,” we are told at one point, and soon it becomes clear that this is “less a police investigation to discover a culprit than a personal matter between Maigret and this woman.” It’s on!

Even though there’s not much detective work, and Maigret, as so often, just has to wait to have the solution provided to him, I still thought this one of the best I’ve read in the series for a while. Once again there’s the slow revelation of a perverse character type, which also allows for observations such as this:

Maigret had often tried to get other people, including men of experience, to admit that those who fall, especially those who have a morbid determination to descend ever lower and take pleasure in disgracing themselves, are almost always idealists.

Self-destructiveness is fueled, in other words, by a profound disappointment or even disgust with the world. I’d never thought of it quite that way, but I think the Detective Chief Inspector has a point.

Maigret index

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