The second book I taught in my French Crime Fiction class this semester was an early novel from a favorite author: Georges Simenon. Simenon (who was actually a Belgian, but who’s counting) wrote nearly 200 novels over several decades, as well as numerous short works — a kind of record for sheer hard work and persistence. Many of these novels are mysteries or thrillers, nearly 70 of which are about the police inspector Maigret. Most of the rest are what Simenon called “romans durs,” gritty novels of psychological suspense. Simenon is a wonder. He must have written some duds in there — you don’t write several books a year without missing fire once in a while — but every book I’ve ever read by him has been tightly-plotted, concise to the point of being terse, interesting, often witty, and full of insight. Le port des brumes is no exception.
This book begins with amnesia, and ends with remembrance. A man is discovered wandering the streets of Paris, his memory entirely gone and a scar on the side of his head. Research discovers that he is Captain Joris, from a small port town called Ouistreham. Commissaire Maigret is given the task of bringing him home safely, but the morning after they arrive, Joris dies from a dose of strychnine. But who would kill an amnesiac? What could he remember to tell anyone? Maigret is plunged into the atmosphere of the town and its canal as he tries to solve the crime. It’s a tiny town, with a small round of suspects and a definite rhythm:
Ouistreham was a very ordinary village, at the end of a bit of road lined with small trees. The only thing that counted was the harbour: a lock, a lighthouse, Joris’s house, the Buvette de la Marine .
And the rhythm of this harbour, the two daily tides, the fishermen going past with their baskets, the handful of men only occupying themselves with the comings and goings of the boats…
The wall of silence among its inhabitants — from mayor to deckhand — badly hinders him and his assistant Lucas, but Maigret’s keen psychological insight and intuitive leaps bring him to a solution at last.
As in many Maigret novels, the weather plays a big role. One of Simenon’s great strengths is his ability to evoke a sense of place, whether it’s a small, almost claustrophobic town, a Parisian street, or the inner sensation of having a head-cold. The thick fogs of Ouistreham, pierced only by the lighthouse’s roving eye, are a metaphor for the initial confusion of Maigret’s mind. Later, when the story comes to a climax, there’s a huge storm outside, the wind and rain lashing against the boat where Maigret is finally extracting some information from the characters. Afterward, the fog has finally retreated onto the bay, the sun shining on the waves — and the Maigret can begin to see his way clear.
This mystery, like others of Simenon’s, is concisely written, with a vocabulary of under 2000 words. Commissaire Maigret himself is written an ordinary Frenchman, not someone from the upper crust, and he expresses himself in ordinary language. But Simenon is no ordinary writer. His insight into victim and perpetrator alike — into communities and even into nations — sets him apart. If you’ve never read a Simenon novel, start anywhere you like with Maigret. You won’t go wrong.