Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife by Simenon
Translated by Julian MacLaren-Ross
During our last club week (1947) I came to Maigret as something of a treat when I was feeling all read out and not sure what I wanted to turn to next. Simenon was such a prolific author that there’s always likely to be at least one of his books from a particular week, and from 1951 there are several titles. I confess that I sent off for this book when we decided on 1951, and although it’s a bit battered it appears to have an interesting history – I assume from the sticker on the front it was once a file copy at Penguin!
“Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife” is a short book, but absolutely compelling. Set in a sweltering summer Paris, the great detective and his colleagues are struggling to cope with the weather while getting on with their job. Maigret is visited by ‘Lofty’, the burglar’s wife of the title; many years ago, when he was a rookie cop, she stripped naked in an attempt to resist arrest by him for her involvement in a crime. Nowadays, however, she’s married to well-known safe cracker, Sad Freddie, and she brings Maigret a strange and intriguing story. Whilst out burgling, her husband stumbles upon a dead body in the house he’s attempting to turn over. Figuring that it’s dangerous to stick around, he does a runner and, after phoning Lofty to tell her, leaves Paris with no forwarding address. Both Freddie and Lofty reckon he’s in danger from the murder and so Lofty wants Maigret to solve the crime and get her husband off the hook. However, with no reported death in the area, no body, and no real certainty about where the murder is supposed to have taken place, Maigret is faced with an almost impossible task.
This is a classic Maigret set-up; so often, the detective is lured into a case by the slightest of hints or connections, uncovering an unexpected crime, and it’s where he (and Simenon!) excel. After a bit of hard graft, the house is identified as one occupied by a wealthy respectable dentist Guillaume Serre and his controlling mother. Serre is large arrogant man who is dominated by mother; married twice, his first wife died of a heart condition and his second, Maria, has apparently recently returned to Holland. There is no body; there are no forensics; there is no evidence of a crime of any sort. Any other detective would walk away, but Maigret’s instincts will not let him. After finding the slightest shred of a thing that might allow him a way into the case, he hauls Serre in for one of his epic interrogation sessions; a battle of wills between two big men that will end in perhaps a surprising way.
MATBW was, of course, pure joy to read; I’m not sure I’ve ever been let down by a Maigret title. The atmosphere of the squad room is brilliantly conjured; the odd domestic setup of the Serres with the petty little everyday tyrannies is chillingly portrayed; the usual ensemble cast enliven the narrative; and Maigret’s interrogation is masterly. All this is told in Simenon’s spare, economic style which still manages to convey so much. There are regular tropes in the Maigret books – the undiscovered or uncertain crime; the hot weather; the team ferreting about to no avail and starting to have little doubts about the wisdom of their superior’s actions; and Maigret producing a result with a clever interrogation. But they never get dull or tired, which is another tribute to Simenon’s writing.
I said at one point in my comments that I could easily spend the whole week of the 1951 Club reading classic crime; actually, I could happily have spent it in the company of Maigret and I’d never have had a dull moment. So another successful read for our club this week, and I’m rather convinced that my Maigrets need to survive any library downsizing attempts…