My hat goes off to Georges Simenon. Following Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses, a book I thought had him just going through the motions, he came up with something quite fresh and surprising in Maigret’s Secret.
At a dinner party with the Pardons, Maigret gets to reminiscing about a case that has always bothered him. A woman was stabbed to death in her home and her husband was convicted of her murder. He ended up being executed. But was he guilty?
Maigret had his doubts at the time of the investigation, but things were taken out of his hands by his old nemesis, the magistrate Coméliau, and Adrien Josset is sent off to what I assume was a date with Madame Guillotine (the official method of execution in France until the abolishment of the death penalty in 1981). Years later, Maigret’s doubts persist. Actually, Maigret’s Doubts would have been a better title here, but it had already been used. I don’t know what his “secret” is.
So this is a mystery without a solution. Or, for that matter, any way of arriving at a solution. Maigret’s method (or anti-method) of staying open-minded and allowing the case to resolve itself, takes time. But here time is the one thing he doesn’t have, as the public is impatient for Josset’s head. All we have are hints that things might have turned out differently. At one point Maigret meets a concierge who is just one of several extremely rude and antagonistic supporting players. She “looked nothing like the person he had imagined.” This is a point worth flagging, as it’s part of a theme in the book about the reliability of snap judgments. When the concierge lets him in and he goes to the apartment of Josset’s lover he is again put off.
It was all a bit of a let-down. The geraniums were there all right, but they were the only detail that corresponded to the mental image Maigret had formed of the place.
Just as with the concierge, Maigret’s mental picture is blown up. So how much else might he have been wrong, or right, about?
Once again there is something made of the fact that the married couple no longer sleep together — a point that had some weight in Maigret Sets a Trap and Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses. Is it a bad sign here too? Or immaterial? We’ll never know.
A coda suggests a possible alternative solution, but it comes by way of an unreliable narrator and is unverifiable anyway. This is deeply subversive. Closure, however ironic, is one of the essential elements of the mystery genre. But here we’re left to entertain different Jossets, a man who is either very wicked and clever or very hapless and naïve. Some lives, like that of Josset or the parallel case of Pardon’s patient, just come to a frustrating and messy end. They have their own narrative logic, and we have to take them or leave them as they are.