Maigret: Maigret and the Killer

I’ve been reading most of these Maigret books in order, but I jumped way ahead by mistake and read this one immediately after finishing Maigret’s Holiday. This led to a bit of whiplash, as Maigret’s Holiday had been published in 1947 and Maigret and the Killer came out in 1969. I’d been jerked, along with the technophobic Maigret, from the France of peasants and horse-drawn carts (or at least la France profonde) into the swinging world of Paris chic and the murder of a young man with disturbingly long hair who might be David Hemmings from Blow-Up (1966), only armed with a tape recorder instead of a camera.

“A political matter?” the reporters ask. “A love affair?” No, just madness. In other words, a modern, ironic crime, without any explanatory narrative: one where evidence means nothing and Maigret does less work than usual in waiting for the solution to come to him in the form of a guilt-bound, pathetic Raskolnikov. A crime more of our own time then, for not signifying much of anything. Welcome to random days.

Maigret index

Maigret: Maigret’s Childhood Friend

He’s not really Maigret’s “friend.” Though it’s interesting that everyone calls him that, assuming that he is. In fact, as Maigret constantly has to correct them, Léon Florentin was only a classmate, and one he looks on now with a mix of pity and resentment.

Given that weak personal connection, I was left a bit confused as to why Florentin would come to Maigret in the first place to get him to investigate a murder that he had some involvement in. This was much the way Maigret’s Pickpocket kicked off too, and I didn’t really understand it there either. Just laziness on Simenon’s part? I have to ask given the way the novel starts, with Maigret working at his desk with the window of his office open. He notices a fly buzzing about before “all of a sudden, as if it had had enough, it took flight and passed through the open window before losing itself in the warm air outside.” Maigret returns to annotating his reports when Florentin’s visit is announced and we’re told that he had “forgotten the fly, which, perhaps offended, must have flown out the window.” Well of course it flew out the window! We were just told so on the previous page! That’s lazy.

I’ve remarked before (in my notes on Maigret’s Patience) how often the character of the concierge in these novels is presented as a negative presence, though never an out-and-out villain. That’s the case again here, with a really ugly concierge who turns out to be the key that reveals the killer. She’s obese and scheming and resentful, possessed only of a sense of low cunning that Maigret has to work around in order to get at the truth. Were there any nice concierges in Paris or were they all this bad?

Maigret finds the whole thing so exasperating he breaks a pipe stem in his teeth at one point. This made me wonder how common an occurrence this is. Are pipe stems easily broken? I’d ask somebody, but I don’t know anyone who smokes a pipe. They seem to be very much a niche these days.

Not a great Maigret story, but it has some dramatic interest. Especially the way Maigret gathers all the deceased’s clients together so he can observe them interact. That was a nice bit of Poirot business. Though at one point Maigret’s philosophy on crimes of passion is expressed, and I think it’s a bit different than that held by Poirot:

He nearly told them that there are no such things as crimes of passion. And yet that was more or less what he believed. He had learned in the course of his career that the spurned lover or the abandoned wife will kill less out of love than out of a wounded pride.

Of course, wounded pride might lead to a crime of passion. It depends how sticky we’re going to be with definitions. Love and pride live next door to each other anyway.

Maigret index

Maigret: Maigret in Vichy

I don’t know if it’s because Simenon liked writing about them or because I like reading about them more, but his Maigret novels with wicked women as the villains are my favourites. It works (for me) again here as Maigret and his wife are on vacation taking the waters at Vichy, which is where a mysterious woman he had noticed as always dressed in lilac is found strangled one morning.

The heavies are the dangerously independent, and “self-satisfied,” Lange sisters. What a pair of schemers they are! We feel it’s only right that the elder Lange is killed, and Maigret even hopes the guy who did her in is acquitted. I can hear him muttering “What a bitch!” as he did at the end of Signed, Picpus.

It’s not much of a mystery, as there’s only one suspect and Maigret is led to him quickly through some rather random deductions. For example, that the phone caller needs time to arrange a meet-up is attributed immediately to the fact that he “must be married,” which isn’t an obvious connection to make. The back story is interesting though, playing like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for grifters, and it moves along in a tight, suspenseful manner. On the copyright page it says it was first published serially (in Le Figaro), which I don’t think was usual up to this point. At least I didn’t see any notes to that effect in the other books I checked. Given that there were two or three Maigret novels being published every year, serial publication wasn’t really necessary.

Perhaps a week at the spa was just what the doctor ordered in more ways than one, as this was the first really good Maigret story in a while, and I think stands as one of the better in the series. Bad women really brought out the best in our man.

Maigret index

Many books in tiny rooms

As I’ve mentioned before (see my write-ups for 2016 and 2019) I’m a big fan of the annual book sale — formerly known as the Giant Used Book Sale — put on by the Friends of the Guelph Public Library. Because of the COVID-19 lockdown this event was cancelled the last two years, but this past week it was back on, and I was waiting in line to enter on opening night.

I knew going in that I was going to be disappointed, which helped. In the past the sale took over a small warehouse, but this year they were in the same building but had been shunted aside into some office space adjoining the warehouse proper. The result being that the floor space was reduced from 30 000 to 8 000 square feet. That was too tight, and there simply wasn’t enough space for all the books, or all the people. They had a limit of 375 people they could let in at one time, and there were that many waiting in line when the doors opened on the first night (which was also the only day there was an admission fee). Then there were so many people packed together when I got inside that I had to give up on the fiction room entirely as I literally couldn’t move through it.

As an aside, I came away from the experience figuring that, having escaped getting COVID thus far, if I missed getting it this week I could feel confident I had achieved some kind of immunity. So far, all clear! I remain a NOVID, or COVID virgin.

Not having enough room for all the books wasn’t quite as bad as the restricted mobility, since it meant the tables had to keep getting replenished with books from the storage area as the sale went on. So it made sense to keep going back. I attended on three separate days and found a big difference in the selection each day.

All-in-all it was a pleasant enough experience, though when I filled out the feedback form online I told them they needed to find a bigger venue (something I’m sure they already knew). The volunteers were great, and all the people were friendly despite the crowding, semi-competitive atmosphere, and lingering COVID anxieties. I figure around 20% of the people attending were wearing masks. But nobody was yelling at anyone, which was nice.

I was lucky in not wanting to shop for fiction. As it is, I’m always impressed at the kinds of books that people seem to flock to the most. The people who buy bales of books were mainly buying genre fiction: thrillers, mysteries, romance, SF/Fantasy, and YA. You can say what you want about those kinds of books, but the people who read them read a lot. Meanwhile, the rooms I was interested in — history, biography, criticism — were only lightly attended, and the books weren’t moving quickly. Which was nice for me, anyway.

Maigret: Maigret Hesitates

It was in my review of Maigret Sets a Trap that I first remarked on how much significance Maigret puts on married couples sleeping in separate bedrooms. It’s something that the detective chief inspector often finds himself taking note of in these books, and when we find out here that Émile Parendon and his wife aren’t sleeping together we can only take it as a red flag. It’s the flip side of how much time Simenon spends describing Maigret and Madame Maigret together in bed, which is obviously something he holds up as a kind of domestic ideal.

I liked reading Maigret Hesitates, though it’s representative of most of the later books in this series in that the ending was a lot less interesting than the build-up. The premise here had a lot of potential, with Maigret receiving an anonymous note in which a murder is announced. He investigates the grand old house from which the letter came and finds the usual family of rich eccentrics. It all seems building up to something neat, but then the murder itself is more of an accident and all the preliminaries, like the emphasis on Article 64 of the Penal Code, are made irrelevant. At least they seem irrelevant to me. Maigret apparently thinks Article 64 has some application to the murder, though I’m not sure what.

More than that though, Simenon just isn’t creating interesting psychological types anymore. Even a couple as weird as the Parendons are strange without being relatable or compelling. Nor is there anything interesting in the family relations. So what you get is an entertaining read, but the odd elements (like the letters and the Article 64 obsession) don’t add up and there’s no big payoff.

Maigret index

Maigret: Maigret’s Pickpocket

Thank goodness! I don’t consider Maigret’s Pickpocket to be one of the best Maigret books, but considering how dull and contrived the series had been getting, it was nice to have one that I enjoyed. There were lots of questions to ponder, not just whodunit, but whether Ricain had talent or was just a poseur, and how loyal his wife actually was. That these ancillary questions are never answered didn’t bother me a bit. In fact, they made me like the book even more.

François Ricain is the pickpocket, a young man of modest means trying to make it in the film business in Paris. The odds of him getting a break seem long indeed, and he’s settled down into a shabby Bohemian existence, living with his wife in an oddly-appointed apartment and scrounging among friends to make enough money to pay his rent. One day he steals Maigret’s wallet but returns it the next day. This is because his wife has been shot and he needs Maigret’s help.

(As a quick aside, Maigret has his wallet stolen because he keeps it in his back pocket. Madame Maigret has told him not to do this but he doesn’t listen. For the life of me I don’t know why anyone keeps their wallet in their back pocket. I have never in my life kept my wallet in my back pocket. That’s just stupid.)

As you’d probably guess by this point, Maigret doesn’t like this particular crowd. Nor do any of the other upstanding citizens of Paris. After making inquiries, the words that come up most often to describe them are: “savages, badly brought-up people, no morals.” And it’s not just the young people. The older producer who takes advantage of the system crosses a line with Maigret:

“Tell me, Monsieur Carus. I imagine that you have a procession of pretty girls coming into your office every day. And most of them would do anything to get a part in a film.”

“Very true.”

“And I’m guessing that you may sometimes take advantage of your visitor.”

“I don’t hide it.”

“Even from Nora?”

“Let me explain. If now and then I take advantage, as you put it, of a pretty girl, Nora doesn’t worry too much, as long as it doesn’t last. It comes with the job. All men do the same thing, though they don’t all have the same opportunity. Yourself, chief inspector . . .”

Maigret looked at him forbiddingly, without smiling.

“Oh please forgive me if I shocked you. Where was I? . . .”

The killer is the sort of loser that Simenon seems to have had a special dislike for: intelligent but bitter about going nowhere and carrying about a sense of grievance and humiliation. The thing that’s new here is that this is a description not only of the killer but of most of his friends as well. Which makes you think that a larger breakdown was occurring in Paris in . . . 1967. The shit was about to hit the fan.

Maigret index

Celebrity bios, the early days

Michelangelo (or is it?) by Daniele da Volterra, c. 1545.

Regular readers of this irregular blog will know that I have a passing interest in the way celebrities or people in positions of power seek to manage and control their image or “narrative,” both in their dealings with the media and with biographers. For earlier takes, see here and here. It really is a fascinating subject.

Giorgio Vasari may have invented the biography of the artist with the publication in 1550 of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, English translations of which are still in print. This is a collection of biographies or biographical sketches of famous artists of the Italian Renaissance, many of whom Vasari knew. Vasari thought of the arts as progressing, mainly through the technical achievements, and as the culminating figure of the story of Renaissance art he placed Michelangelo, someone who he considered to be sent by God, if not divine himself.

That wasn’t good enough. It never is.

I was reading The Lost Battles by Jonathan Jones recently and had to smile at this:

Michelangelo read this [Vasari’s book] and was ambivalent. Having sent Vasari a poem praising him for bringing so many dead artists back to life, he got his own pupil Ascanio Condivi to take a break from making paintings based on Michelangelo’s drawings in order to write an official life of his master.

Condivi’s Life of Michelangelo, published in 1553, set out to correct errors in Vasari – and to overturn facts Michelangelo didn’t like, such as Vasari’s entirely accurate claim that he had been Ghirlandaio’s apprentice.

I love it! Imagine being so upset at a hagiographical life that you assign a subordinate to “correct” it by falsifying the record.

As I’ve said before, if you’re reading the bio of a living celeb (meaning one who still has the ability to have any influence over what someone is writing about them) you have to assume that it’s going to be, at best, only the loosest facsimile of the truth. It has always been thus.


“Glass of Water and Coffee Pot” by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1760)

“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams (1923)

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Maigret: Maigret and the Nahour Case

I really should have enjoyed this one, and the fact that I didn’t was a clear indication to me that the series is played out.

The reason I thought I should have liked it is that it has such a narrow focus. Maigret is woken from a dream (he has an active dream life) by a phone call from his friend Dr. Pardon, who has had to do some emergency surgery on a mysterious couple who then disappear as soon as he sews the patient up. It turns out she had been shot. The next day her husband is found to have been shot as well, only fatally.

So the question is Who killed Félix Nahour? The wife? The wife’s lover? The maid? The seedy secretary? It’s a neat little mystery involving conflicting passions and loyalties, with all of the suspects lying to Maigret about pretty much everything.

Unfortunately, it’s a neat little mystery without a neat little solution. This is another one of those Maigret stories where the detective chief inspector just gets a feel for what’s going on and nails it. But how are we supposed to play along? What clues were tipping Maigret off? Especially since the double shooting was such a bizarre event in the first place. I also didn’t understand the motivation of the killer. They should have resolved their personal issues with Nahour long before things came to the point they did.

Maigret index

On the misuse of Dante

Filippo Argenti is down there somewhere.

In an earlier post I commended the analogy made by a First World War airman between the appearance of a battlefield and the geography of Dante’s Inferno. What I particularly liked was its literary precision. It didn’t just use “Dante’s hell” as shorthand for something very bad, but specifically drew a comparison between the tortured landscape he was flying above and the place where punishment was meted out to heretics.

I was thinking of that correct use of Dante recently while reading Sara Gay Forden’s The House of Gucci. In the first of two references to Dante in the book Forden pulls a line from Inferno to shine some light on the “bizarre Florentine or Tuscan spirit,” which is a very literal translation of some words (fiorentino spirito bizarro) used in Canto VIII that are used to describe Filippo Argenti.

That’s all Forden says, and it surprised me a bit because all I could remember of Filippo Argenti is that he was someone Dante (the poet) really hated, and who Dante (the pilgrim) found drowning in the bog of the Styx. I thought the use of the word bizarro probably meant something a little different than “bizarre,” at least as it was being used in the poem. On looking into the notes in Robert and Jean Hollander’s English translation of Inferno I found this:

The word bizarro, explains Boccaccio’s comment to this passage, in Florentine vernacular is used of people who “suddenly and for any reason at all lose their tempers.”

This makes sense in context because the Styx is where the wrathful are being punished. But I don’t think it’s what Forden meant. Especially since in the poem it refers to Argenti going into a kind of fit where he starts biting himself in rage.

The second time Forden mentions Dante made even less sense to me. Talking of the building that Guccio Gucci bought as a workshop, she quickly gives some of its history: “In 1642, the building was acquired by the cardinal and then the archbishop of Florence, Francesco de’Nerli, whom Dante mentions in his Divine Comedy.” How could Dante have mentioned a cardinal who was alive in 1642 in a poem written in the early years of the fourteenth century?

I’m not a Dante scholar. I never studied anything by him at school and I don’t know Italian. I shouldn’t be stumbling over things like this.