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

Burning, burning

The latest assessment (the sixth) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a massive (4,000 page) and exhaustively-sourced document laying out that climate changing is happening, is “unequivocally” being driven by human activity (specifically the burning of fossil fuels), is getting worse, and is already to some extent irreversible.

None of this is new, but it helps to have these reports dropped on us with some regularity because it keeps what’s going on in the news, along with stories about extreme weather events like raging forest fires and devastating floods.

Some reflections:

(1) We’ve known about this for fifty years now. Powerful interests, particularly the fossil fuel industry, have effectively waged a disinformation campaign against the science through their funding of the “merchants of doubt.” That said, I think most people get it and understand what’s really going on. But what can be done?

(2) The root problem is overpopulation. At present the global population is 7.9 billion. I was actually surprised it was already that high, but it’s going up by 200,000 a day. Some environmentalists get upset when you bring up the matter of population, seeing it as a diversion. I think it’s fundamental. As David Attenborough put it, “There is no environmental problem that is not made easier by less people.” Sure if we all lived with the carbon footprint of the average Bangladeshi then we might get by, but that’s not going to happen. And yes, global population will likely peak sometime around mid-century and then go into a sharp decline, but by then we’ll be cooked.

(3) In addition to overpopulation there is the fact that we live in an industrial economy based on mass production and mass consumption of goods. Some people blame capitalism, but I don’t see how a socialist government would be doing any less damage running the same industrial system. The old communist Soviet Union and China under Mao were two of the worst environmental offenders in history. As I’ve said before, the only environmentally sustainable human economy is life in a medieval village. We can’t go back to that even if we wanted to, and we certainly don’t want to.

(4) As for climate change, things are, as David Wallace-Wells put it, even worse than you imagine. And as bad as they are now they are likely to get much worse, and on an even faster schedule, than we expect. The feedback loops are already in place and operating.

(5) The only non-catastrophic way out would involve a global movement based on an egalitarian spirit of shared sacrifice. This would avoid total social and environmental collapse, but life would still get a lot harder. That said, I see no chance of people coming together to make the kind of changes that would be necessary to avert disaster. There’s no putting a happy face on this one. Our situation is worse than we think, and will soon end up being worse than we can imagine.

Postscript: As a final point, I want to address something that I’ve seen being said online in various forums: that our response to the COVID-19 pandemic is grounds for hope that we can successfully respond to climate change.

This is deluded. I already wrote up my own report card for COVID, but just to highlight: The only really successful part of the global response to the pandemic was the creation of a vaccine. We may liken that to the work done by the IPCC scientists. They did their job. But the job done by the medical establishment, even in the wealthiest countries, was spotty, the political handling of the epidemic was generally poor, the economic fallout, I believe, will be disastrous, and the social response was depressing in the extreme. Anyone looking at how we coped with COVID for signs of hope on the environmental front is wearing rose-tinted glasses indeed.

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.

Damn COVID

I thought it was over. Or at least that things would be getting better soon. I’ve always been aware of the fact that we’re never getting back to normal, if by “normal” is meant the way things used to be, but I thought we might return to at least an approximation of the status quo ante.

A couple of recent developments have shaken my faith in this a bit. In the first place there’s been an announcement on the status of the annual Friends of the Public Library Book Sale. I’ve posted before on this event (in 2016 and 2019). It’s something I look forward to every year. Of course it was canceled last year due to the pandemic but I thought there was a chance it might be a go now. Where I live we have a very high full-vaccination rate (over 80%) and the sale isn’t until October. But they’ve already said it’s off again.

Understandable. If they were going to hold it they would have to start accepting donations now, and they probably aren’t fully comfortable with that. Plus it’s an event that can only run with a lot of volunteer help and they might have had some trouble on that score too. So I get it. But it’s still quite disappointing and leaves me wondering if it might be in trouble next year as well, or even if it’s going to be viable at all going forward into our “new normal.”

The second bit of news is more upsetting. I’ve always been a bit of a gym rat, and with the gyms being closed for the past eighteen months I’ve been having to manage withdrawal symptoms. Well, the gyms are open now, but with two big caveats.

In the first place, you have to wear a mask. Now I agree this may be for the best. And I accept that it’s possible to work out while wearing a mask, if not a lot of fun. But I don’t want to wear a mask while exercising, and I’m certainly not going to pay to do so. Until the masks come off I’m not going back.

Also, and less understandable, is the fact that the hours have been severely restricted. The gym I was previously a member of was a 24-hour gym, which suited me perfectly, as I am a night owl. Since they’ve reopened their new hours are 5 am to 10 pm on weekdays and only 7 am to 7 pm on weekends. 7 to 7! Is that a joke? And is it the new normal? I’m afraid it may be, as one person on staff who I talked to let it slip that they had no plans to ever going back to being a 24-hour gym. Consternation! Is this the world that COVID-19 made? Damn.

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

Crushing it

In an earlier post I talked about how I was playing a lot of online chess during the lockdown but that I still wasn’t getting any better. I’m a terrible chess player, and remain so. But every now and then I do have a good game. Here’s the brilliant checkmate I scored against Sven, the 1100 ELO avatar on Chess.com.

A great game by me? No. I have to be honest, Sven played very poorly this time out. Sometimes he does that. But I had no blunders or mistakes and totally dominated. I may have to move up to Nelson someday. But he’s a bully and usually beats me very quickly. I need to get better first.

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.

Maigret: Maigret’s Dead Man

A series of panicky phone calls leads not to a whodunit but rather into a police procedural, as Maigret tracks down a gang of brutal killers who are described as being little better than animals: “Where, in what lower depths, in what world of poverty, had their group been formed? . . . Given the way they were and behaved, they would in earlier times or other climes have lived exactly the same lives, naked, in forest or jungle.” They don’t even kill for money, but only to eat, drink, and rut.

“Civilized men fear wild creatures, especially wild creatures of their own kind who remind them of life in the primeval forests of ages past.” The gang’s well-dressed leader, however, is “an even more dangerous wild animal” for practicing a more refined and dangerous form of viciousness. Alas, we never get to hear any of these wild things speak, making them a lot less interesting than their countryman Radek from A Man’s Head. And what did Simenon have against Eastern Europeans anyway?

A good read, and you can tell why it was one of the novels chosen for the short-lived ITV Maigret series starring Rowan Atkinson. The opening game of telephone tag plays well, so much so that you don’t stop to ask why Albert doesn’t just tell Maigret what’s going on. Only the business with Maria’s baby feels like a misstep. I think it’s the first time in the series that I found things getting corny. Something I’ll have to keep an eye on as I continue.

Maigret index