Maigret: Maigret Travels

In Maigret Enjoys Himself our hero

felt a bit jealous of Janvier, not because of his success, but for a silly reason. Every time an investigation at the Police Judiciaire incurred certain costs, such as travel, they had to fight a battle with the accountants, who went through every expense claim with a fine-tooth comb.

How had Janvier managed to swing a flight to Cannes? They must be attaching a singular importance to this case, that they should have loosened the purse strings so much.

I don’t know if it was in reaction to this, but Maigret gets to score some major frequent-flier points (as well as riding in a Rolls-Royce for the first time) in this next adventure as he flies off to Nice, Monte Carlo, and Lausanne while investigating the case of a billionaire drowned in a bathtub. Being a billionaire in 1957 was, I suspect, a pretty big deal. But it’s important to get the currency right. In this instance, “If you count in francs, it’s correct. Not in pounds.” In any event, I’m not sure what the exchange was at the time, but the deceased was rich.

As things turn out, Maigret doesn’t dislike members of the elite set, but they upset him.

These people irritated him, that much was a fact. Faced with them, he was in the position of a newcomer in a club, for example, or a new pupil in a class who feels awkward and embarrassed because he doesn’t yet know the rules, the customs, the catchphrases, and assume the others are laughing at him.

Of course, putting a chip on Maigret’s shoulder isn’t a good idea if you want to get away with murder, and aside from all the flying about he handles this one pretty easily. In fact, there’s really only the one suspect. It’s not much of a mystery. The best part of the book is a lengthy psychological analysis Maigret performs on the super-rich, finding them mostly as fearful of falling out of a lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed and spoiled by. Spoiled meaning no longer capable of functioning with any kind of independence.

. . . all those who led this kind of existence – wouldn’t these people feel lost, helpless, naked somehow, as powerless, clumsy and fragile as babies, if suddenly they were plunged into everyday life?

Are “these people” still with us? Not the super-rich, they’re obviously still around, but a class that is totally dependent on a servant class to exist? For all the rhetoric adopted by today’s upper class, of being alphas and hard-nosed masters of the universe, I think most of them are probably the same. What’s more, their fear is greater than ever, as it’s an even longer way down.

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Bogle hunting

Over at Alex on SF I’ve added my review of the H. G. Wells classic tale of body horror The Island of Doctor Moreau. I start off by saying how this is a book that I took on board at an early age and that I’ve regularly come back to. On this most recent re-reading, however, I found I’d been getting something wrong. When he comes back from his first excursion about the island, the narrator Prendick is trying to get Montgomery to explain what it is he (Prendick) encountered in the jungle:

“Montgomery,” said I, “what was that thing that came after me. Was it a beast, or was it a man?”

“If you don’t sleep tonight,” he said, “you’ll be off your head tomorrow.”

I stood up in front of him. “What was that thing that came after me?” I asked.

He looked me squarely in the eyes and twisted his mouth askew. His eyes, which had seemed animated a minute before, went dull. “From your account,” said he, “I’m thinking it was a bogle.”

I felt a gust of intense irritation that passed as quickly as it came. I flung myself into the chair again and pressed my hands on my forehead.

The first time I read this, and on every subsequent reading up until now, I’d always thought “bogle” a made-up word or pet-name that Montgomery used to refer to a particular type of Beast Man. His answer then registers as nonsense to Prendick, who collapses in exasperation. He’s just never going to get a straight answer out of Monty.

I was reading the Penguin Classics edition this time though and saw “bogle” tagged with an endnote, which informed me that bogle refers to “a phantom or creature of one’s own imagining.” So bogle wasn’t just a nonsense word.

Consulting a dictionary, I found bogle defined as a goblin or specter. The Oxford English Dictionary has “a phantom; a goblin; an undefined creature conjured up by superstitious dread.” Meanwhile, Wikipedia has this to say:

A bogle, boggle, or bogill is a Northumbrian and Scots term for a ghost or folkloric being, used for a variety of related folkloric creatures including Shellycoats, Barghests, Brags, the Hedley Kow and even giants such as those associated with Cobb’s Causeway (also known as “ettins”, “yetuns” or “yotuns” in Northumberland and “Etenes”, “Yttins” or “Ytenes” in the South and South West). They are reputed to live for the simple purpose of perplexing mankind, rather than seriously harming or serving them.

I guess the Penguin note is correct in how Montgomery is using the word (“you were just seeing things”) but I was interested in knowing that it was a word Prendick would have understood, and that Prendick’s exasperation derives from being told that he’d only imagined seeing the bogeyman.

Maigret: Maigret Enjoys Himself

The Dunning-Kruger effect is one of most cited in the field of psychology, to the point where it’s become an all-purpose media touchstone. At its most basic level it refers to the tendency of people to be overly confident of their knowledge and competence in an area where they have little ability or expertise. The initial study was published in 1999. And here is an observation made by Detective Chief Inspector Maigret in Maigret Enjoys Himself (1957):

The less knowledge or experience some people have to back [their opinion] up, the more certain they are that they know what they are talking about.

Part of the work of science is to establish on an empirical basis what everyone already knows.

Maigret is enjoying himself in this book because he’s on vacation. Except that he doesn’t want to take on the crowds at all the usual French getaway spots so he and Madame Maigret opt for a staycation in Paris (“In August everyone will be away, and we’ll have the place to ourselves”). Alas, when the naked body of a prominent doctor’s wife is found stuffed in a cupboard, a crime that immediately becomes headline news, he can’t help but get his hand back in the game. He’ll remain an observer, relying mainly on newspaper reports for information on the case, but he’ll try to nudge his temporary replacement Janvier along in the right direction by way of some anonymous tips.

This is a bit awkward, as the news reports have to be novelistically detailed in order to give Maigret (and us) the information necessary to move things along. Was this style of writing typical of French newspaper reporting in the 1950s? I have doubts. Then there’s the doctor’s personal assistant/nurse, who is described in the following manner: “She is unmarried, and from the sight of her it is difficult to imagine her ever having had a man in her life.” Was this sort of drive-by smear of an innocent party typical of French newspaper reporting in the 1950s? Perhaps it’s a little more likely.

Overall this is an enjoyable change-up that has fun with its working-vacation premise. One of the more interesting parts, and one that says something about how things were changing over the years Simenon was writing these books, comes in a chapter where Maigret eavesdrops on a pair of young lovers. “The boy’s hair was too long; the girl’s, too short.” Get used to it Jules! Long hair for boys and short for girls was coming. But even worse comes when the couple get up to leave and pass by Maigret’s table.

As they passed, the girl gave Maigret’s hat an amused look, even though there was nothing the slightest bit ridiculous about it. It was true that she wasn’t wearing a hat herself, and her hair was cut short like that of a Roman emperor.

Ouch! Not only do they have modish haircuts, but hers explicitly suggests a male authority figure. Meanwhile she finds hats ridiculous! Even if there’s “nothing the slightest bit ridiculous about it”! In Cécile is Dead Maigret had been disturbed at his American visitor not wearing a hat. But that was 1942. The times they were a-changing.

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Maigret: Maigret’s Failure

I haven’t said anything yet about the covers of these Penguin translations of the Maigret series. The photos are credited to Harry Gruyaert. I think they work really well, though I don’t like the lettering they used for Simenon’s name. In any event, most of the time they aptly capture the post-War Parisian scene, though not as much in the earlier books, which are set in the 1930s. I also wonder why they had a horse on the cover of Inspector Cadaver.

The cover for Maigret’s Failure presents us with the imposing façade of what looks to be a very swank address. I think it nicely captures the messaging of Ferdinand Fumal’s fancy digs on Boulevard de Courcelles: the stolid architecture, complete with closed shutters, reflects an abiding concern in the series with what lies behind respectable bourgeois appearances. Thirty years earlier a young Maigret and his wife had enjoyed walking past this same address, dreaming of moving on up.

“When I’m detective chief inspector . . . ,” he had joked.

And both of them had looked through the railings, with their gilded spikes glinting in the sun, at the opulent townhouses around the park, imagining the elegant, harmonious lives people must be living behind their windows.

If there was anyone in Paris who had gained first-hand experience of life’s brutal realities, who had learned, day after day, how to discover the truth of appearances, it was him, and yet he had never entirely grown out of certain fantasies from his childhood and adolescence.

Hadn’t he once said that he would have liked to be a “mender of destinies,” such was his desire to restore people to their rightful places, the places they would have occupied if the world were a naïve picture postcard version of itself?

Conflict rather than harmony probably reigned in eight out of ten of the still magnificent houses that surrounded the park. But he had rarely had the opportunity to breathe such a strained atmosphere as the one between these walls.

Or, as the cook later puts it when she’s being interviewed: “If you’d seen what I’ve seen in well-to-do houses!”

The actual mystery here will be a familiar one to genre fans, though I can’t remember Simenon using it before. It’s the murder victim who was such a loathsome individual that everyone wanted to kill him. Indeed this is something he was aware of, asking for Maigret’s protection. His murder thus constitutes Maigret’s initial failure, the first of several.

There are a plethora of suspects, all with motive, means, and opportunity. So does it even matter who’s guilty? Not much. The solution comes to Maigret in a dream and the killer’s apprehension, years later, is only worth a shrug.

One of Maigret’s oddities is that he can’t drive (in Maigret in Court we’ll be told that he never wanted to learn how to). He gets police cars to carry him about Paris most of the time, though in a pinch Madame Maigret can get behind the wheel. The fact that his wife drives and he can’t struck me as signaling that his inability to drive was something exceptional. And yet here the super-rich Monsieur Fumal can’t drive either. Nor can his manservant. All three of these fellows hail from the country, so maybe that was typical of Frenchmen of peasant stock at the time. But it’s also probably wrong to think of an ability to drive as being universal. I remember hearing that when filming Get Carter (1971) they had to work around the fact that Michael Caine, in his mid-30s then, didn’t know how to drive. Bringing the story up to date, apparently many young people today are choosing to go car-less, mainly for economic reasons, which, along with the advent of self-driving cars, means that the ability to drive may be about to go into steep decline. Now we just need better public transit and more walkable cities.

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So much for responding to climate change

From Boon (1915) by H. G. Wells:

If a thing is sufficiently strange and great no one will perceive it. Men will go on in their own ways though one rose from the dead to tell them that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, though the Kingdom itself and all its glory became visible, blinding their eyes. They and their ways are one. Men will go on in their ways as rabbits will go on feeding in their hutches within a hundred yards of a battery of artillery. For rabbits are rabbits, and made to eat and breed, and men are human beings and creatures of habit and custom and prejudice; and what has made them, what will judge them, what will destroy them – they may turn their eyes to it at times as the rabbits will glance at the concussion of the guns, but it will never draw them away from eating their lettuce and sniffing after their does . . .

Maigret: Maigret Sets a Trap

In my write-up on Maigret’s Mistake I referred to Dr. Gouin as being “another of Simenon’s spoiled man-babies, waited upon by codependent women.” What it put me in mind of was the similar case of “morbid codependency” I noted in The Flemish House. In both books a man becomes the ironic prize of women competing to show how much they will sacrifice to make him happy. In Dr. Gouin’s case it’s his wife and his personal assistant. In The Flemish House it’s the suspect’s sisters and mother. In this case the killer’s mother and wife have a duel over who will possess him most completely. In order for evil to triumph in the world it’s not only necessary that good men do nothing, but evil must be actively enabled.

Marcel Monsin is a rarity in these books in being a serial killer, and I thought Simenon did a reasonable job trying to explain what drives him. But despite his capture becoming, once again, a “personal challenge” to Maigret, Monsin isn’t the key to the story. That role belongs to the women, who are set up like hot and cold running furies. “In my entire career no case has disturbed me so much,” Maigret sadly concludes. And while there are good reasons for this, I wonder if one that’s not expressed is how much he can relate to these man-baby figures. Isn’t the Detective Chief Inspector a bit of one himself? Childless, and mothered by Madame Maigret at every turn? In my notes on Maigret and the Tall Woman I observed his “instinctive loathing of men who are excessively mothered” and wondered “if there was some psychological projection going on here, as Maigret himself is waited on hand foot by his wife.” (As a quick addendum, at the beginning of Maigret Enjoys Himself Maigret is even conscious of how much Madame Maigret resembles his mother as she goes about her daily routines.)

This may also shed some light on a minor moment that caught my attention here. Is Maigret surprised at the Monsins having separate bedrooms? Madame Monsin can’t understand why, because isn’t this “like many married couples?” Mentally, Maigret concedes the point: “It was after all almost standard, in a certain social milieu. It didn’t necessarily mean anything.” Not necessarily anything, but perhaps something.

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Double feature

Richard and Clint, plotting their next move.

A book-movie double bill today, with notes on Where Eagles Dare up at Alex on Film and a brief review of Geoff Dyer’s commentary on it, “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy,” at Goodreports. Both well worth checking out. They made me wonder though how much of the interest in Where Eagles Dare today is driven by nostalgia. Not for the Second World War, but its place in the cultural imagination, particularly of boys in the 1960s and ’70s. And whether that’s a kind of popularity likely to last. If so, I think it will have to change into something else.

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.

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Maigret: Maigret and the Minister

Maigret and the Minister is a bit of a change-up, being more of a political novel than the other books in the series. Maigret doesn’t care much for politics, or politicians, so when he gets called in by a government minister to investigate the theft of a politically explosive document he doesn’t relish the assignment one bit. He’d rather be dealing with the usual criminal types, feeling at one point “almost fond of the petty thieves maniacs, swindlers, and offenders of all kinds that he usually had to deal with.”

Making matters worse is the role of a press baron in all of this. Because if there’s one group of people that, then as now, people tend to like even less than politicians it’s the media. Who will win this race to the bottom?

Fitting the broader, more public scope of the proceedings there’s also a larger cast, with lots of incidental characters. This is compounded by what Maigret sees as the almost comic competition between Maigret’s team – the Police Judiciaire, headquartered at Quai des Orfèvres – and the Sûreté on Rue des Saussaies. I’m afraid I’m not clear on the distinction between these two organizations. I think Maigret is in a division of the Paris police and the other investigators are federal, but that might be the wrong way around.

Once everything gets unwrapped, however, things settle down into the usual round of Maigret and his deputies wearing out some shoe leather following people about and interviewing suspects until the solution just sort of comes to the Chief Inspector. It’s one of those things where he only needs to be reminded of something that’s been sitting at the back of his mind all along.

Also as usual, the chief villain will have to wait to get their full comeuppance. As for Maigret, he’s happy to wash the stink of politics off his hands and get back to his liars, murderers, and thieves.

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Maigret: Maigret and the Dead Girl

A Jane Doe is found dead on the streets of Paris. It’s on Lognon’s beat but Maigret takes an interest. The Eeyore of the Paris police can never catch a break.

Not one of the better Maigret novels. The victim’s back story is unnecessarily exotic and the resolution is abrupt and kind of ridiculous. I did like the introduction of a leitmotif of old ladies looking for young female companionship in the middle section, even though nothing much is done with it. I remember when I was a kid there would still be older women advertising for female companions to take with them to Europe and other destinations. I’m not sure that sort of thing still happens anymore. It seems like something out of the world of Agatha Christie. In this book it comes across as decadent and almost predatory behaviour. But then the same sort of power imbalance is reflected in the dead girl’s one Paris friendship as well. Before she even got to the mean streets of the big city she was already a victim several times over. There are few things as sad as a life that’s caught in a rut. They never end well.

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