Maigret and the Lazy Burglar

It’s a good thing my father doesn’t read this blog (at least, I don’t think he does), because then he would find out that this is the very first Maigret novel I have ever read. I know! There is absolutely no excuse for my sorry self. I love crime novels, and I teach French, and my dad has read all of these, probably several times, and yet… [Gallic shrug] eh bien, c’est la vie.

If this novel follows the typical Maigret formula, then I can see why people adore it. Its bones are a police procedural. Inspector Maigret is dragged from his bed at four on a frosty morning to see the horribly disfigured corpse of a man he’s known for thirty years. It’s Honoré Cuendet, a Swiss burglar, a quiet, reserved man who lived with his mother and who got his thrills from going into occupied houses, taking jewelry and expensive bibelots, and leaving totally undetected. He has no accomplices, no gang. He’s a reader. He likes to sit and drink white wine in bistros. Who would kill a man like that?

The pleasure of this book comes from the detection, because the detection consists of going around Paris and talking to people. Simenon is very, very good at people.

… And now something odd happens. I have a very clear memory of several of the characters in this book: Cuendet’s mother, Justine, who moved to Paris from her little canton in Switzerland and still maintains her lazy provincial ways and her affirmation that her son is a “good boy” who wouldn’t leave her destitute; Olga, the little prostitute in the hotel, who is so sharply observant, so friendly, and so up-to-the minute on a rich man’s lifestyle that will never be hers; Cuendet’s longtime girlfriend, girlish despite her forty years, so devastated by her loss that she can’t see what’s before her eyes. I was going to quote some of these descriptions for you, so you could see the wonderful style. Simenon is concise, drawing in a few lines what would take some authors a whole novel to accomplish. His atmosphere — of a foggy bistro window, an official spouting bureaucratese — is unparalleled in crime fiction.

But I found that there are few suitable sound bites. Simenon does most of his description through dialogue. Olga is created entirely through her interview with Maigret, and it’s done so effectively that when she suggests sex to him at the end of their conversation, “slightly arced under the covers,” and he refuses, it’s friendly and understanding rather than sleazy, even though those are the only words used.

This was a marvelous novel. There was a subplot involving a series of hold-ups in Paris, and Maigret’s musings about them — that attacks on property are more important to the government than attacks on life — were woven in without undue emphasis, but with a curiously thoughtful approach. I think I could quickly become addicted to these. Another addition to the plus side for the international crime spree.

I read this in the original French (which I recommend if you can; it was terrifically enjoyable), called Maigret et le voleur paresseux, but it’s available in English, translated by Daphne Woodard.

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10 Responses to Maigret and the Lazy Burglar

  1. Victoria says:

    I’ve often seen offers on the Maigret books (10 for £10) in my Book People catalogue and very nearly jumped in but for my uncertainty about crime fiction. But the way you describe this makes me think that it might be more to my taste. You’ve got to stop adding to my wishlist!

    • Jenny says:

      Well, how about you try one of them before you buy ten? But still, that’s an awfully tempting deal. I happened to have some in my office, hand-me-downs from the previous tenant, and I chose this one at random.

      And me adding to your wishlist? That’s a laugh. I never leave Eve’s Alexandria without something in my pocket!

  2. Lisa says:

    I’ve never read Maigret either, though he’s been on my “someday” list for a long time now. There are quite a few books in the series, aren’t there? Always a happy thing when you discover a new author.

  3. Sarah says:

    Just read my first Maigret as well. Quite enjoyed it – as you say, the characterizations really make the story. I’ll be reading more. This one sounds good!

    • Jenny says:

      It was very satisfying. I usually start at the beginning of a series, but since I had this one to hand, I read it in the middle, and I don’t think it matters, do you?

  4. I am far back behind in the crime fiction genre, though I used to read some of them but not the likes of these.

    • Jenny says:

      When I was an adolescent and college student, mysteries were by far my favorite genre. I’ve gone off them lately, with a few exceptions (Laurie King and Kate Atkinson), but these have been great.

  5. I have never read a single Maigret and as a lover of crime and detection I really feel I should try them. I think I was put off by the awful TV series years ago with Rupert Davies as Maigret. They were in black and white (so t hat shows how old they were) and were so badly acted that it rather put me off. But this has made me prick my ears up!!

  6. cbjamess says:

    I’ve been read Simenon for the last ten years or so. He’s become one of my favorite authors. The Maigret’s are all reliably good, but probably not his best work. Books like Dirty Snow and Acts of Passion give Simenon much more room to roam in his exploration of crime fiction.

    The introduction Roger Ebert wrote for the NYRB edition of Acts of Passion has some interesting things to say about Simenon.

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