Maigret: A Crime in Holland

On the canals again, only this time in northern Holland. Why Maigret has been sent to Holland isn’t clear to me. A French national is being held as a suspect in a murder, but what of it? It seems a merely local matter that even the locals aren’t interested in figuring out. Meanwhile, Maigret doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t much like Holland or the Dutch. In fact you could go even further: he seems to despise the place and the people that he meets. Immediately upon wrapping things up he clearly can’t get out of there fast enough (“And that’s all . . . What time is the next train for France?”).

I wonder what his problem is. He finds the citizens pinched and repressed? Hypocrites? The small port town of Delfzijl is repeatedly described as being like a toy town full of doll houses. It is a façade, or whited sepulchre: “one could see the smug residences of the local bourgeoisie, freshly painted, with their sparkling panes, immaculate net curtains and pot plants in every window. Beyond those windows, impenetrable shadows.”

Well, we could say much the same for most English country villages in the golden age of crime writing. Into this world of stolid middle-class respectability the disruptive force of a homegrown pair of luscious eighteen-year-old breasts has blossomed. Which is “reducing events,” as Maigret does, “to their crudest common denominator.” In only a couple of years the owner of these breasts will have “put on weight” (Simenon need say no more) and be scarcely recognizable, but when you’re 18 having such spectacular frontage can cause all kinds of trouble.

I don’t think it’s much of a mystery. Maigret just doesn’t like the look of some people, and they all crack pretty easily under pressure. Even under the ridiculous expedient of a group re-enactment of the crime, which seemed entirely superfluous to me. All of which left me as happy to leave Holland as he was.

Maigret index

The craft so long to learn

In a review of Blake Bailey’s new biography of Philip Roth  Christian Lorentzen concludes with some advice for aspiring authors that may not get covered in many Creative Writing programs:

An exquisitely managed career, right down to this totemic and compulsively readable biography, which young writers are well advised to consult as a blueprint for enduring literary stardom. Its lessons include: never marry; have no children; lawyer up early; keep tight control of your cover designs; listen to the critics while scorning them publicly; when it comes to publishers, follow the money; never give a minute to a hostile interviewer; avoid unflattering photographers; figure out what you’re good at and keep doing it, book after book, with just enough variation to keep them guessing; sell out your friends, sell out your family, sell out your lovers, and sell out yourself; keep going until every younger writer can be called your imitator; don’t stop until all your enemies are dead.

They’re here!

Your invasion may be colourized.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching various body-snatcher movies. The basic idea may have come from Robert A. Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters (1951), which had a real political edge to it. Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955), later made into the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which the novel subsequently adopted as its title, was less political, but that hasn’t stopped people from interpreting it (and all of its successors) that way. Let’s face it, it was the Cold War and body-snatching aliens were all part of the Red Scare. Anyway, here’s the line-up:

Invaders from Mars (1953)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The Brain Eaters (1958)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Invaders from Mars (1986)
Body Snatchers (1993)
The Puppet Masters (1994)
The Faculty (1998)
The Invasion (2007)

Maigret: Night at the Crossroads

The table is nicely set with the location and cast, especially the pair of Danish weirdos. But the resolution disappoints. Intentionally? It seems as though Simenon was, already, wanting to poke some fun at the mystery genre. When we first meet “Else” she “was wreathed in what American movies portray as sex appeal.” Ah, the femme fatale. But why only the sex appeal of American sirens? Maigret is just as entranced by her loose peignoir as any audience in the heartland would be.

I think Simenon is having a go at conventions. Take the way Maigret drags all the suspects (it’s a full house) in for the big reveal in the Poirot manner. He’s even described as being like a conductor leading a “motley orchestra.” And then there’s the fight in the well that is described as clownish, a farce, and buffoonery, followed by revelations that come as though “just like a novel.”

It’s not surprising this one has been filmed several times (thus completing Else’s circle). Those police inspectors gripping revolvers in both fists as they jump out of their car are straight from Warner Brothers’ back lot. All a lot of fun, but it left me wondering where things could go from here.

Maigret index

Revolutions reviewed (again!)

I’m really impressed with another review of my book Revolutions appearing online, this one by the novelist and critic Jeff Bursey. It appears in Galleon, a literary journal based in Atlantic Canada. Very in-depth and well worth reading, as Bursey makes a number of points expanding on and challenging those I made.

For other reviews see here.

Maigret: The Yellow Dog

Maigret is one of those detectives who care less about doing their professional duty than serving some more general idea of justice. This is something the mayor of Concarneau, among others, can’t get his head around, but it’s especially obvious with the bit of subterfuge Maigret pulls at the unofficial inquest at the end of The Yellow Dog. This is something that is often missed in discussions of mystery fiction. The point isn’t so much to re-establish a sense of order that existed before the crime, but to right any deeper wrongs, to pick winners and losers through the exercise of moral judgment.

Enter the trio of immoral losers (including one nicely captured momma’s boy) who find themselves being hunted in The Yellow Dog. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for them. And once again Maigret is cast in the role of class avenger. It all makes for a satisfying read, even if it does come off a bit rushed at the end. Then again, these books all move at a pretty crazy pace. Simenon really seemed to believe in the Elmore Leonard axiom of leaving out all of the boring parts. To the point where a lot of connective tissue also goes missing even in the basic mechanics of his prose. I keep coming to places where it isn’t even clear who is speaking, or to whom.

One interesting note: When Concarneau first goes under siege a newspaper article describes the “deathly still” atmosphere as “reminiscent of towns in northern France during the war when the air-raid sirens sounded.” I was surprised to learn by this that air-raid sirens were such a ubiquitous feature of life in France during the First World War that their use could be so easily invoked. I didn’t think towns had such alarm systems widely in place. The bombing of Guernica is usually cited as the first sustained aerial bombing of a civilian target, and there was an air-raid siren that sounded in that attack, but that was in 1937, twenty years later.

Maigret index

Critter round-up

Leonardo DiCaprio, looking even prettier than his costar in his film debut.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching the five (thus far) movies in the Critters franchise. Widely seen as a Gremlins rip-off, these omnivorous furballs apparently were independently conceived, and the first two movies aren’t all bad. The others are garbage, though Critters 4 does deserve some credit for being, I think, the first horror franchise to expand from Earth into space (later, Hellraiser, Friday the 13th, and the Leprechaun franchises would all make a similar migration).

Critters (1986)
Critters 2: The Main Course (1988)
Critters 3 (1991)
Critters 4 (1992)
Critters Attack! (2019)

Ranking some social media anti-Semitism

Recently there have been a number of high-profile cases of people getting in trouble for making what have been labeled anti-Semitic social media posts. Are they really, though? Or are they just wingnut crazy? Or totally innocent? Let’s take a look.

Marjorie Taylor Greene

In a rambling 2018 Facebook post Taylor Greene mused aloud/online over whether wildfires in California had been caused by a laser beam directed from space. It’s hard to tell from her post who she thought actually directed this laser, but the utility company Pacific Gas & Electric seems to be the main culprit. Since a later investigation held that PG&E powerlines had led to the wildfires this wasn’t too far off the mark, at least as far as culpability goes. However, Taylor Greene went on to draw attention to what she found to be the suspicious connection between PG&E and the investment firm Rothschild, Inc. (she names a man who was on the board of both corporations).

The media jumped all over this and Taylor Greene’s rant would go on to be universally referred to as the “Jewish space laser” post. This is because the Rothschilds have often been linked to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. That said, Taylor Greene herself never called the laser a Jewish space laser and reading her post I’m not sure what role she thought the Rothschilds were playing in all of this. Is “Rothschild” a dog whistle? I’m sure it is. And was the post crazy? Absolutely. But the anti-Semitism, while legible, seems kind of tangential to her (insane) theories.

Gina Carano

Former MMA fighter and actress Gina Carano was fired from the TV show The Mandalorian after posting the following on her Instagram account:

Jews were beaten in the streets, not by Nazi soldiers but by their neighbors . . . even by children. Because history is edited, most people today don’t realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different from hating someone for their political views.

What Carano is doing here (it might not be obvious) is comparing the plight of conservatives in the U.S. today to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. Crazy? I think we have to again say yes, though what Carano is saying isn’t quite as bonkers as the space laser. Anti-Semitic? That’s a harder one. Lucasfilm stated that Carano’s “social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.” I don’t see where she’s doing this. She’s really stretching to claim victim status but is identifying, at least to some extent, with Jews. You could say that her post was insensitive, but I don’t think it’s all that anti-Semitic.

Nathan J. Robinson

Robinson is, or was, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper and found himself in trouble when objections were made to a pair of linked tweets he’d posted about the miserliness of COVID relief in the U.S. budget as compared to the amount of money being given to Israel to buy missiles. In his tweets he said the following:

(1) “Did you know that the US Congress is not actually allowed to authorize any new spending unless a portion of it is directed toward buying weapons for Israel? It’s the law.” (2) “or if not actually the written law then so ingrained in political custom as to functionally be indistinguishable from law.”

Despite the fact that the part of the post where he says “It’s the law” was clearly meant as sarcastic, and immediately flagged as such, his bosses took objection to what they saw as the spreading of “fake news” and fired him for singling out Israel for criticism.

The response to Robinson’s post is typical of the way criticism of Israel is often targeted as being anti-Semitic. Is what he said anti-Semitic though? Or even anti-Israel? It mainly seems to be a criticism of American budgetary priorities. I don’t see where he’s blaming Israel for taking the money. But I guess if you were so inclined you could see it as critical of Israel too, in so far as it implies that the U.S. should be spending its money on other things. On the anti-Semitism charge though I just don’t see it.

So . . . the person who posted the craziest and probably the only legitimately anti-Semitic comments on social media faced no consequences or blowback (at least from her own party), and is still a sitting member of Congress, while the other two individuals were fired from their jobs. Is there a lesson in that? If so, it may be one representative of the Trump era: If you’re going to say something really dumb, you should always go big. Social media doesn’t handle nuance well, and rarely seeks to engage us in close reading. It’s there to trigger instant likes and dislikes, retweets and knee-jerk reactions. The medium might not be the message, but both are getting toxic in mutually reinforcing ways.

Maigret: The Carter of La Providence

Georges Simenon lived on a boat for a while, and spent a lot of time travelling through the French canal system. So he was probably grinning at the idea of setting a novel in this environment, with Maigret looking “to absorb the atmosphere, to capture the essence of canal life, which was so different from the world he knew.”

Personally, I don’t know a thing about canal life. I have a general idea of how canals and lock systems operate, but that’s it. This made my ability to visualize some of the action in this one difficult, making me think of Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read (short answer: we make most of it up).

Canal life, however, is just window dressing here. The story follows what I guess, having read a few of these now, is the usual script. There is the juxtaposition of high life and low, with the yacht Southern Cross and the barge Providence representing different ends of the social-economic (but not moral) divide. There is the man, and in this case a woman too, leading a kind of double life, which requires Maigret to dig into their past. And finally the killer is revealed as someone we have sympathy for, their crime the last stop in a life lived downhill, full of disappointment and despair.

A good read, but the plot is based on a pile of improbabilities and coincidences. This is also par for the course. Maigret himself never seems to do much actual detective work aside from tracking a few leads to nail things down at the end. Instead, a wall cracks and the killers sort of crumble on their own.

Maigret index

Spies in the ’60s

You have a lot to answer for, Mr. Bond.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching a bunch of spy movies from the 1960s (along with a couple of outliers at either end of that decade). Basically this means Bondmania: the Connery Bond movies and all their parodies, imitators, and correctives. Somehow Bond just hit on the perfect formula right from the start though, and no one could ever duplicate the success they had with it.

North by Northwest (1959)
Dr. No (1960)
From Russia with Love (1963)
Charade (1963)
Goldfinger (1964)
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1965)
The Ipcress File (1965)
Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)
Thunderball (1965)
Arabesque (1966)
The Quiller Memorandum (1966)
Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die (1966)
Torn Curtain (1966)
Our Man Flint (1966)
Funeral in Berlin (1966)
Murderer’s Row (1966)
Modesty Blaise (1966)
Casino Royale (1967)
You Only Live Twice (1967)
In Like Flint (1967)
Billion Dollar Brain (1967)
The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967)
Deadlier Than the Male (1967)
Some Girls Do (1969)
Topaz (1969)
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
The Kremlin Letter (1970)
Diamonds are Forever (1971)