Maigret: Madame Maigret’s Friend

If you thought, as I did, that this was going to be a book where Maigret’s wife (first name Louise, in case you ever get quizzed) was going to play a central role, you would be mistaken. No, she’s still the model housewife here: doing the grocery shopping, cooking Maigret his meals and fetching him his slippers and pipe at the end of the day. But she does do a bit of investigating at one point, wearing out some shoe leather in tracking down an important lead. After which she can go back to making dinner.

The rest of the book is just as disappointing. It’s another one in the series where the villains are mainly kept off-stage, so we only hear about them second-hand. There’s also a messiness to it that’s perhaps the result of Simenon trying to tie two plots together in an awkward way. Some occasional low-key humour helps out, but otherwise I found this to be one of the least distinguished instalments in the series.

Maigret index

Maigret: Maigret and the Old Lady

Is Maigret an alcoholic? He does wonder at one point here if he’s drinking too much, though at least he’s not an angry drunk. He just gets sleepy.

So not an alcoholic, but someone who drinks a lot. Most of this is professionally related. “The upstanding citizens who protest against the number of bars are unaware that they are a godsend for the police.” A poisoned chalice, I’d call it, since given the number of glasses of beer, wine, liquors, and liqueurs that Maigret pounds back in these books, usually while he’s working, his liver must be thoroughly pickled.

His favourite beverage is something called a Calvados. I had to look this up, and found that it’s a cider brandy native to Normandy. It’s also the regimental drink of the military unit I was a member of in the reserves. This was news to me. Apparently the Canadians landing on the beaches on D-Day were handed out Calvados by the locals.

As Maigret heads to Normandy for this adventure it’s no surprise he gets a chance to knock back a few Calvados. Though he also smashes a bottle for effect at the end, an action he almost immediately regrets.

The set-up is familiar. There’s been a murder in a small town that looks like a picture postcard. Maigret admits he has “a childish hankering” for such places, even while being aware of “the other side of the coin.” The pretty houses are just like the nice clothes and good manners of the rich family he’s investigating, where all the members are living secret lives. Meanwhile, poor people end up being more collateral damage.

Overall I’d rate this as one of the best pure mysteries thus far. It’s a poisoning this time, and poisonings are fun because they’re a more thoughtful sort of crime. The killer has a plan that has to be unraveled, as it is here in a satisfying way. Minus what happens to that bottle of Calvados.

Maigret index

Return to Stepford

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching the two (big-screen) adaptations made of Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Mostly I was trying to figure out what went wrong. Levin’s book is a little classic, and one that would still seem to have a lot to say to us today. But both movies (1975 and 2004) get confused as to what their ultimate point is, and end up being muddled without providing much in the way of horror, humour, or social commentary. I can’t help thinking that someone might still be able to get it right, if they ever want to give it another shot.

Maigret: Maigret at the Coroner’s

After playing host to various visiting officials keen to study his (non-existent) “methods,” Maigret is on the road here, taking a “study tour” through the U.S. that has landed him in Tucson, Arizona and a coroner’s inquest into the death of a B-girl whose mangled body parts have been found on a railway track. Although only a spectator he is immediately “hooked” and “in the game.”

Maigret had come to America on at least one previous occasion, but in Maigret in New York the New World was looking a lot like the Old, in part because the people he was investigating were European immigrants and in part because New York City is such a cosmopolitan place. In Tucson Maigret encounters the real America and there’s more of a sense of culture shock, and not just because in the vastness of the sun-baked American West he is someone who has never learned to drive a car. Though being a pedestrian is linked to his sense of feeling shabby.

He felt it several times a day, this impression of shabbiness. These people had everything. In no matter what small town, the cars were as numerous and luxurious as on the Champs-Élysées. Everyone wore new clothes, new shoes; shoe repair shops were hard to find. Crowds all looked well scrubbed and prosperous.

The houses were new, too, full of the latest appliances. They had everything: that was the right word.

And yet despite all this newness, prosperity, and plenty, the newspapers are full of crime. Why? To some extent it can be explained by crime being part of the same drive for more that consumes everyone. It’s this drive that leads to the rise of the criminal celebrity, an admiration “of the kind that everyone in the States showed for anyone who succeeds, whether as a millionaire, a cinema star or a famous murderer.” That drive, the desire for more, can never be satisfied. As his FBI guide explains, “there are moments when the comfortable house, the smiling wife, the well-scrubbed children, the car, the club, the office and bank account are not enough.” “Does that happen back in your country, too?” he asks. Maigret affirms that it “happens to everybody.” This is because, he believes, “that men and their passions are the same everywhere.” So much so that in the end Maigret’s Tucson counterpart feels the same sense of indifference to the execution of justice.

All of this stuff is interesting, in the great tradition of French intellectual takes on American culture. But the actual crime and its investigation are difficult to follow, even with the maps and diagrams provided, and the attitude toward rape has also dated badly. Still, I’d rate it above average for the series, even if it’s a bit of an outlier in ways that go beyond the desert setting.

Maigret index

Forgetting what the point was

From “The Curriculum and College Life: Confronting Unfulfilled Promises” by Leon Botstein in Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk (2005):

The underlying and optimistic belief behind the effort to make access to higher education as universal as possible is a traditional conviction that there must be a causal link between education and human progress. The notion of progress can be understood in various ways, in terms of civility, understanding, tolerance, ethics, aesthetic judgment, or citizen participation. One of the sharp ironies of contemporary life is that although more Americans are completing more years of formal schooling than ever before, including time in college, we find ourselves confronted, it seems, despite more exposure to learning, with an absence of progress in these arenas. One needs only to cite the declining quality of public political debate, lapses in integrity and standards in professional and business practices, public entertainment (e.g., reality television), precollege school achievement, and what the eighteenth century called civic virtue.

Curricular changes notwithstanding, what has remained frighteningly consistent despite nearly a half century of increased access to college is that the encounter with the primary purpose of being in college – learning – seems not to have left many traces on our life after college. The presumed civic and cultural benefits of going to college continue to elude us. The experience of classroom learning (writing papers, tackling problem sets, completing laboratory assignments, taking examinations) has not influenced college graduates, as adults, to live their lives differently or, one might suggest, better. Classroom learning seems to have had little effect on the manner in which students conduct their daily lives or graduates pursue vocations and careers, if one believes the critics of contemporary  practice of medicine and law. There is little empirical justification for the conceit of influence embedded in the rhetoric of liberal learning and general education.

Maigret: My Friend Maigret

The detective’s sidekick is almost as essential a part of mystery fiction as the detective himself. It’s testimony to just how indispensable a figure the sidekick is that even though Maigret doesn’t have a regular Watson or Hastings or Archie Goodwin — though he does have Lucas and Janvier, subordinates at the Police Judiciare — in many books a temporary sidekick has to be introduced. Like the sad drunken clown he employs in Maigret in New York, or the poor musician who volunteers to be his assistant in Maigret’s First Case.

In this book the sidekick is a Brit from Scotland Yard named Mr. Pyke, a fellow lawman who has come, like so many others, to observe the famous Maigret’s “method.” Only to find out, as those others had before, that Maigret doesn’t have any method. Or at least that’s what Maigret always says. Though I think it’s obvious that his anti-method is a kind of method all its own.

I thought this was one of the best in the series so far. Maigret comes to the island of Porquerolles to investigate the murder of a beachcomber who had, just before his death, publicly announced himself as a friend of the Chief Inspector. A nice little cast of suspects is assembled, leading Maigret to observe at one point that “there were only freaks on the island.” This gives the proceedings a tidier feel, with Porquerolles being a sort of locked room. The action is easy to follow with lots of wry human observations. The only thing I didn’t care for was the ending. The killer is someone who really upsets Maigret, leading him to verbally and physically abuse him in a manner I found quite out of keeping with his usual reserve and empathy. And yet they don’t seem any worse than many of the other criminals we’ve met in these novels. Nor does it seem to be the case that Maigret took the murder of his “friend” personally. So what is it about the killer that rubs him so much the wrong way? As with the horrible Madame Le Cloagulen in Signed, Picpus, I get the feeling that it has something to do with gender assumptions.

Maigret index

Maigret: Maigret’s First Case

April 15, 1913. Jules Maigret is twenty-six years old and working as secretary to the chief inspector of the Saint-Georges district police station. Tall but skinny, he looks like a “raw-boned adolescent” and doesn’t intimidate anyone. His new wife still calls him “Jules.”

In this flashback entry in the series (in superhero parlance something close to an “origin story”) we get to see the formation of the future celebrity chief inspector, as well as a template for much of what would follow. The plot is the familiar one of a wealthy family with dark secrets hidden behind the façade of their well-appointed home. Maigret investigates, uncovers the buried truth, but then learns a lesson not in his police manual about how it may not be worth pursuing justice in all cases. Sometimes this does more harm than good, so what would it really achieve?

The most notable part though is Maigret’s sense of his own calling.

The profession he had always yearned for did not actually exist. As he grew up, he had the sense that many people in his village were out of place, that they had followed a path that was not theirs, purely because they didn’t know what else to do.

And he imagined a very clever, above all very understanding man, a cross between a doctor and a priest, a man capable of understanding another’s destiny at first glance.

This is very optimistic, and expresses a worldview grounded in golden age detective fiction. For everyone and everything there is a proper place and order. Everyone has a correct destiny, and evil or crime only come about when people lose their way. It is the role of the detective as doctor/priest to heal any disorder and reaffirm the natural, healthy way things ought to be. There is, however, a tension between this and Maigret’s learning to let things go, as doing justice can’t really make anything better. In the end, rich people are just going to do what they do anyway, leaving behind a mess for others to clean up.

Maigret index

Re-reading Shakespeare: Cymbeline

(1) Those opening lines are difficult. I get their sense but can’t precisely take them apart to see how they work. Their difficulty is instructive though, because it’s a pair of courtiers talking and they’re talking like courtiers. The theatre director Dominic Cooke was asked specifically about the difficulty of Shakespeare’s late style in this play and said the speech in the first scene is convoluted precisely because “the characters are speaking in a courtly code. It’s as if everyone is nervous about being overheard and potentially incriminated.” Let’s face it, even if a spy was writing down everything word for word, what would anyone make of this:

You do not meet a man but frowns. Our bloods
No more obey the heavens than our courtiers
Still seem as does the king.

Try translating that into English. What makes it even more difficult is that the two gentlemen are talking about the dissembling that is going on at court, and their mixed feelings at Innogen not marrying Cloten and Posthumus being banished. So are the frowns real or feigned? Are the courtiers in sympathy with the king, or pretending?

The contrast between the world of the court and the natural world of Wales, where real men live in caves, was standard stuff even for Shakespeare, but I feel like this is one of his most cynical takes on the theme. Everyone at court schemes and lies and backstabs as they try to get ahead. Iachimo has Posthumus pegged as a hypergamous toy-boy and tries to talk him down to the international set in Rome. It’s a special kind of jealousy he feels for Posthumus, a young man on the rise. Belarius was right to get the boys away from court life. It’s wicked!

(2) Of course the Queen – unnamed because she’s a type of the wicked stepmother – is a bad one. But what’s new here is that everyone knows she’s bad. As soon as she turns her head they’re telling us that they’re on to her villainy. “I do suspect you, madam,” Cornelius says, staying one step ahead of her poisoning scheme. Innogen knows she’s “a stepdame false,” while the Second Lord calls her a “crafty devil” as soon as he’s left alone. I think the only one who doesn’t see through her is Cymbeline, which makes his expostulation at the end when her machinations have been revealed – “Who is’t can read a woman?” – all the funnier.

Is she meant to be a comic figure? She’s not like Edmund or Iago. Tamora in Titus Andronicus is her most obvious precursor, but Tamora was far more fearsome, and Aaron, Demetrius, and Chiron more threatening than Cloten, who sounds perfectly awful but is all wind. He gets some shockingly violent and vulgar lines, talking about fingering Innogen or trying her with his tongue, or fantasizing about raping her beside Posthumus’ corpse, but in the end he’s as harmless as his mom. So are we just meant to laugh at them?

(3) Poor Lucius. In the final scene’s mad rush of recaps and revelations he gets brushed aside pretty quickly, even after standing up for Fidele/Innogen. “Save him, sir,” he asks Cymbeline, “And spare no blood beside.” Cymbeline does save him/her but immediately adds that Fidele should not thank Lucius for this mercy. Then, after Cymbeline grants Fidele in turn the chance to spare a prisoner Lucius says “I do not bid thee beg my life, good lad, / And yet I know thou wilt.” Ha! Talk about wishful thinking. “No, no, alack. / There’s other work in hand,” is how Fidele responds, leaving Lucius to bemoan such ingratitude in one so young.

The boy disdains me,
He leaves me, scorns me; briefly die their joys
That place them on the truth of girls and boys.

I’m pretty sure this is another point where we’re supposed to laugh. Fidele’s “There’s other work in hand” is part of the whole spirit of “Get on with it!” that dominates the final scene. For a long time Cymbeline was seen as being the work of a burnt-out writer, or one grown lazy. I think that’s possible, and maybe even likely, but if so it’s a burnout that Shakespeare could still have some fun with.

Another trip to the dictionary

There may be all sorts of reasons for my not knowing a word. It might be really old and not have been in use for a while. It may be slang that I don’t recognize. Or it may be part of a specialized branch of knowledge that I know nothing about.

The latter is my excuse for not knowing “dehiscence” when I came across it in H. G. Wells’s The Food of the Gods. In the context of the novel it’s clear that it refers to the bursting open of pollen sacs and that’s what I figured it’s only meaning was. On looking into it, however, I found it’s also a fairly common bit of medical terminology, referring to the rupture or splitting open of a suture or surgical wound. I suppose if you’re a medical professional you’d know this one right away (and maybe not know its botanical meaning), but I’ll confess I pulled a complete blank on it. Seems like the kind of word that could get plugged into a lot of other contexts though, so I’m going to keep it filed away.