Maigret: Inspector Cadaver

Either these books are growing on me or they’re getting better. Or perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Inspector Cadaver has a lot of familiar ingredients. We begin with Maigret taking another trip out of Paris to visit a provincial town that he finds disturbingly alien and depressing. Saint-Aubin is a typical Maigret destination in its crappy weather and secretive attitude toward outsiders. Worst of all, “As for his name, who knew if anyone had heard of it in this village surrounded by slimy bogs and pools of stagnant water?” Not heard of Maigret!

Looking out on the empty, rainswept streets and “houses like blind people,” Maigret is driven to wonder at how there are people who spend their whole lives in Saint-Aubin. But by the end of his visit he will experience a remarkable moment of epiphany: “Now he was almost like God the Father. He knew this village as if he had lived there, or better still, as if he had created it. All the life going on in these small low houses hidden in the dark was familiar to him.” Try keeping your dirty little secrets from God!

Also carrying over from the other novels is the interest in looking behind the façade of bourgeois life (those blind houses, those twitching curtains). There’s always something nasty going on in these sleepy little towns, some dark secrets being kept. Also, as in The Yellow Dog and The Misty Harbour, the notion of justice being done is stretched quite a ways. Only, as in Signed, Picpus, here it’s less about being forgiving than it is a cynical shrug at the evil of the world. What’s the point of holding the leading citizens of Saint-Aubin to account? What good would it do? As for poor Albert Retailleau, he suffers a fate not unlike that of his father, killed off by accident and converted into a payout to his mom. He is, in fact, the story’s punchline: “There’s always got to be some poor fellow who carries the can for everyone else!” Ha-ha! The leading citizens are then free to head to Argentina, where they can enjoy lives of wealth and decadence in a place where it doesn’t rain so much.

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Maigret: Signed, Picpus

A game of connect-the-dots so playfully rendered I have to wonder if Simenon was just having a bit of fun with these stories now. How far was his tongue in his cheek when he served up this description of the chief inspector: “In the course of his thirty years in the job, Maigret has seen all kinds of everything. He has sniffed the air and smelled the odour of human passions, vices, crimes and manias, the entire ferment of massed humanity.”

All the fun and games come to a dark end indeed though, as this is the most bitterly ironic of all these novels thus far. Madame Le Cloagulen is a figure so vicious the other characters, including Maigret himself, are shocked that she can even exist. She is unnatural, a harpy, someone who leaves Maigret at a loss for words. He can only expostulate “What a bitch . . .” And yet even though he “has it in for her” his plans to nail her for something other than walling her dead husband up fail in the face (and laughter) of an insouciant heiress. Maigret’s “amazing intuition, his frightening ability to put himself in the shoes of other people” isn’t up to the task of dealing with either woman. Perhaps because they are women? I don’t think that’s quite right. But they are modern women, and that’s something he doesn’t seem capable or willing to understand.

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Maigret: The Judge’s House

Are these Maigret novels really that well written? They’re prefaced in this series by testimonials from authors ranging from William Faulkner to John Banville, so Simenon clearly had, and has, a lot of prominent fans.

I have to say I’ve been less impressed by the literary quality of the series thus far, but in chapter 6 of The Judge’s House the abbreviated style achieves a remarkable effect as Maigret follows up the leads given to him by Judge Forlacroix the night before. Maigret himself recognizes that “it was a little like the reality of a film. A documentary film, for example. Images unreel on the screen. At the same time, the voice of an off-screen narrator comments on them . . .” That’s a passing of the narrative guard that was still pretty new, I think, in 1942.

Unfortunately, the plot here is nonsense from start to finish. I wasn’t even sure what Lise’s problem was. Nymphomania? Whatever. The old busybody Didine was a bit of fun, but in the end she’s tangential to the melodramatic goings-on in the judge’s house.

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Maigret: The Cellars of the Majestic

Upstairs-downstairs at the swank Hotel Majestic, and you know what side Maigret – “plebeian to the bone, to the marrow” – is on. Meanwhile, the rich guy (American, so you know he’s really rich) is an asshole even if he is innocent.

The class divide played a bigger role in some of the earlier books, like The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, but you definitely feel its presence resurfacing here. Still, the social order is never fixed: a dancer can marry a millionaire. This upward mobility is seen in several stories, where we find a character with  proletarian/plebeian/peasant roots who has risen in the world. And, as Balzac put it, the secret behind many a great fortune is a crime that was never found out.

It seems Simenon was hitting his stride around this time. The characters are all interesting and the plot is relatively tight. I’m not sure what to think of Maigret’s outburst of violence at the end, but maybe that’s his peasant blood reasserting itself. Plus he’d earlier shown that he could take a punch himself and shrug it off. If you’re going to dish it out you have to be able to take it.

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Maigret: Cécile is Dead

I guess Maigret didn’t retire, as he’s back as Paris’s celebrity police investigator here. Even to the point where a young man has come all the way from Philadelphia just to learn about his “method.” Good luck with that. “How can I explain it to you?” Maigret asks. “I feel it.” But then how can you explain anything to a man who won’t wear a hat, even in the rain? Americans!

Though one of the longer Maigret mysteries I still felt shortchanged. I thought there was so much more to say about what was going on in that Neapolitan ice cream apartment building. As it stands, it’s pretty clear who the good guys and the bad guys are, though the focus on a smaller cast of characters and a single setting gives you more to sink your teeth into. The idea of love changing to avarice, “one passion chases out another,” made me think of Trina in Frank Norris’s McTeague. I love these pocket case studies in abnormal psychology.

As I say, I would have been happy with a few hundred pages going deeper into all this. But Simenon seems to have had a kind of attention-deficit problem when it came to these books. He’ll set the hook with a delightful opening, as he does here with an evocation of the foggy Paris streets to kick things off, or again at the beginning of Chapter 8:

It was still raining in the morning, a soft, dismal rain with the resignation of widowhood. You didn’t see it falling; you didn’t feel it, yet it covered everything with a cold film, and the surface of the Seine was pitted with thousands of little circles. At nine, you still felt as if you were off to catch an early train, for day was reluctant to dawn, and the gas lamps were still lit.

But he never continues in this vein for more than a paragraph or two. He’s impatient to get on with the story. Why the rush?

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Maigret: Maigret

Yes, it’s just Maigret. I wonder if Simenon was starting to have doubts about the project at this point, tossing off a title like that.

Well, the big guy is enjoying a cozy retirement with Madame Maigret when his nephew, a newly minted detective on the Paris police force, badly bungles a stake-out. So badly, indeed, that he’s charged with murder. So Maigret is dragged back into action to clear the poor idiot out.

A bit of a change from the usual fare, as we basically know whodunit from the start. It’s more along the lines of a crime story than it is a mystery. Amadieu, Maigret’s replacement, even explains how Maigret’s “usual method” doesn’t apply here: “Usually, you get involved in people’s lives; you try to understand their thinking and you take as much interest in things that happened to them twenty years earlier as you do in concrete clues. Here, we’re faced with a bunch about whom we know pretty much everything.”

Instead of using his powers of empathy and reasoning Maigret has to resort to some old-school trickery involving the use of a piece of broom handle and a telephone. Even then, he’s really flying by the seat of his pants. But does this mean he’s back?

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Maigret: Lock No. 1

The curtain rises, by way of a nice analogy to the movement of fish, on a working-class riverside neighbourhood that has the appearance of “a stage set or rather a self-contained world heavy with reality.” That attention to setting doesn’t mean much in terms of plot, but it does suggest a kind of fish-bowl like focus on the Charenton neighbourhood Maigret has been called to, a focus complemented by the fact that there are only a couple of characters we spend any time with. This is a minimalist Maigret and it plays well alongside the usual jerkiness of the prose. At least we don’t feel like we’re being jerked around such great distances.

Émile Ducrau isn’t one of Simenon’s more interesting or complex creations, in my opinion, and what’s odd is how we’re supposed to read Maigret’s response to him. Even before their first meeting, on discovering evidence of Ducrau’s boorishness, Maigret is beaming with pleasure. Later, as audience to further displays of just how obnoxious Ducrau is, our hero is described as “reveling in the company of someone who was really worth knowing.” In what regard? In what ways, aside from the physical (which is always important in these books), is he a match for Maigret? Why the build up to so many of their “man to man” conversations, turning them into epic competitions? One can understand Ducrau’s respect for Maigret, but is it reciprocated? By the end Maigret will see in the blasted Ducrau something “tragic but also rather ridiculous and contemptible.” But has this been a tragic fall? Ducrau had been a pig right from the start. A rich pig, but still a pig. So what does Maigret see in him that’s so fascinating or enjoyable?

And what’s this about Maigret retiring? How old is he anyway? I’m sure that’s not going to last. There’s still a rather long shelve of books to get through.

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Maigret: The Misty Harbour

I think this is the longest of these Maigret books I’ve read thus far. Which doesn’t mean it’s very long. Simenon’s style is almost telegraphic in its abruptness, to the point where I feel like I can hear the typewriter keys hitting the paper as he banged them out. In The Misty Harbour he’s off again to a provincial town hiding a bunch of dirty secrets. So many that it takes the extra pages just to sort them all out.

As I proceed through the canon I’m finding a basic, recurring disjunction. The crimes and criminals are usually very interesting, with motivations grounded in strange yet familiar psychological conditions. But the plots are a stretch, feeling hasty and indifferently slapped-together. I think it’s what Eliot might have called a failure to find a successful objective correlative, in this case a plausible narrative, for representing extreme emotional states.

Another commonality is the way justice, at least in its formal, administrative sense, is rarely done. This is a point I made in my notes on The Yellow Dog. Culprits don’t get handcuffed and taken away by the police, but instead either destroy themselves or are let go by Maigret. I’m not sure what Simenon is saying in all this about the proper role of the police. He’s dogged in finding out what happened, but upon achieving that goal he basically loses interest and hops on a train back to Paris. Let God sort it out!

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The end of anger

Angry, and not alone.

I’ve read and reviewed a lot of books on (mostly American) politics over the past few years, and one point that keeps coming up is anger. To be sure, anger has long been a key component in politics. It was in 1976 that Howard Beale (in the movie Network) gave his live rant about how people should scream from the windows that they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. This famous line would be adopted by Dominic Sandbrook for the title of his political history Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right. So the 1970s seem like as good a place as any to locate when temperatures started to rise.

Gerald F. Seib picks up the story a little later on, tracking the genealogy of anger “from Reagan to Trump” in We Should Have Seen It Coming. He sources the main fount of anger, however, to the Tea Party movement, which launched in 2009 (kicking off with another live rant on television, this time not fictional). The Tea Party, in Seib’s account, “was the first political movement born on social media, and the first to show that anger was the special rocket fuel that could propel such a movement. It would not be the last.”

Before the Tea Party, however, Gavin Esler had described the 1990s as the seedbed of today’s angry politics in his survey of The United State of Anger. A very prescient take on what was coming down the pipe, and one with a precise and correct diagnosis of what was driving it. Remember the Angry White Males? They were much talked about at the time, and never went away.

In books about the Trump phenomenon there has been a lot of talk about anger. Obviously Trump himself is a very angry person, which made him the perfect vehicle for what a large segment of the population was feeling. Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage being a good on-the-ground account of what Trump was tapping into.

I find the historical analysis fascinating because it reflects what I’ve been witnessing happening first-hand. There is a lot of anger out there. I can’t recall a time when there’s been so much of it. I sit across from it at restaurants, see it when I go out shopping, and even encounter it when walking in the park. I have sat and been a sounding board far too many times in the past few years for someone venting about their family, their job, or just the world in general. We are living, as Pankaj Mishra puts it, in The Age of Anger (a must-read for these times).

A couple of observations that I’ve made before but that I’ll repeat here.

(1) The anger is not exclusive to white males without a college education, or those “left behind” by the new economy. Far from it. Many of the angriest people I know are wealthy, successful professionals or businesspeople. Not all of them are young. Many are older, and enjoying comfortable retirements. Many are women. Anger also possesses both the political left and right. It is, in short, not limited to any one demographic. In Twilight of Democracy Anne Applebaum makes the same point when describing former friends who have embraced populist politics. They are not losers but an elite. This has not, however, made them immune to anger. Is anger then part of, or connected in some way to the so-called “narcissism epidemic,” a condition where the whole world is not enough to feed our egos? The example of Trump suggests there may be something to this.

(2) The main factors that are pushing our individual and collective needles into the red are, in my opinion, growing economic inequality and social media. With regard to the former, I’ve written before about how the COVID-19 pandemic is only going to make things worse (and people angrier). With regard to the latter, Seib ends his book by interviewing Eric Cantor, a former House Majority Leader who lost his seat to a populist uprising. When Seib asks Cantor what has fed and spread the anger that eventually took him down he answers by pulling out his smartphone. Enough said.

Broader factors contributing to a politics of anger would include the fact that people find politicians and parties increasingly unrepresentative and unresponsive, as well as a more general sense of the world being outside their control and indifferent to their feelings. In any event, if I’m right about the role being played by inequality and technology it’s hard to come up with an optimistic prognosis. Economic inequality is going to get worse, perhaps much worse. Social media is not going to bring us together because it makes money out of triggering rage. Anger will grow, tempting more politicians to ride the tiger. Who can believe this will end well?

Screen time: Forebodings

From Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke:

Do you realize that every day something like five hundred hours of radio and TV pour out over the various channels? If you went to sleep and did nothing else, you could follow less than a twentieth of the entertainment that’s available at the turn of a switch! No wonder that people are becoming passive sponges — absorbing but never creating. Did you know that the average viewing time per person is now three hours a day? Soon people won’t be living their own lives any more. It will be a full-time job keeping up with the various family serials on TV!

For some previous thoughts, see my earlier post Screen time.