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.