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A fish out of water

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Maigret Takes a Room by Simenon
Translated by Robert Brain

I didn’t think it would be long until I read my latest Maigret! I actually started reading this book over a coffee on the day I found it in a local charity shop, and as I was nearing the end of a review book I carried on with the Maigret as soon as I could. They’re addictive – and very, very readable – and a strong case could be made for having a month of reading nothing but the exploits of Simenon’s famous detective!

“Maigret Takes a Room” opens with the great man very much out of his comfort zone! Madame Maigret is away visiting a sick sister, and so her husband is rattling around in an empty flat, feeling guilty if he goes to a restaurant or has a drink, but unable to cope with the silence. However, sudden dramatic events involving the shooting of one of his officers take Maigret off to a quiet boarding house which seems to be at the centre of things. The wounded officer, Maigret’s loyal side-kick Janvier, was watching the house in pursuit of some robbers, and so Maigret takes a room in the building in an attempt to track down the perpetrators.

And an intriguing place it is, too. The establishment is run by a middle-aged woman with an obvious love of cakes and Chartreuse, Mme Clement; according to her all of her lodgers are lovely people with no issues. There are a couple of struggling families; some young women with occupations of varying respectability; some gentlemen with rather dull jobs, and a retired musician who teaches piano to young girls. Maigret watches the neighbourhood from his window, misses his wife and solves the mystery of the missing thief quite quickly. However, as usual with Simenon, there’s much more to be investigated than just the simple, obvious crime, and as Maigret steeps himself in the atmosphere of the area and studies its inhabitants, he comes to a startling conclusion about the reality behind the shooting of Janvier.

Jean Gabin as Maigret

Simenon is *such* a clever writer, and that’s amply on display here. As always, Maigret seems to mooch through his investigation, soaking in the ambience of the neighborhood and getting to see what’s behind the facade of what goes on around him. Simenon’s prose is spare and economic, yet he always manages to capture brilliantly the atmosphere of a place and convey his characters with all their foibles and issues. Mme Clement in particular is vividly depicted, and a worthy foil for the detective. And I always love the way Simenon takes a seemingly straightforward crime, embellishes it with his wonderful characters and setting, then twists the story so something completely unexpected develops.

As you might be able to tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this read, and I’m so glad I picked it up in the local charity shop. I find I can’t go wrong with a Maigret, particularly if I’m in one of those moods when I don’t quite know what to read. And the 20th century translations seem to work well for me, so despite the fact the lovely shiny new Penguin editions are very appealing, I’ll probably keep sticking to the old battered versions I know and love!

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As I mentioned in my haul post, when I picked up this particular Companion Book Club edition, my decision to purchase was swayed by the fact that there is an interview with Simenon in the back of the book. This is a reprint of the Paris Review interview and it makes fascinating reading. The author comes across as something of a writing machine; once he has the idea for the book he simply has to sit down and write it, a certain number of chapters a day without a break, or it won’t come to fruition. Interestingly, more of the focus seems to be on the non-Maigret writing, and the detective gets very little mention at all. An essential read for those wanting an insight into Simenon’s creative process!

Ahem. #books

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What was that phrase about the best laid plans? Oh yes – I think that came from a book, too….!

So there was I, feeling all smug about not buying much in the way of books lately, and with piles of them in the hall waiting to be donated. But today, I happened to wander into a couple of charity shops, not really looking for anything in particular and not wanted anything in particular. But Bookish Things Happened….

The first charity shop had a little clutch of Companion Book Club editions – always recognisable because of their distinctive jacket design, if they still have one. These two particular titles did, and although they’re a little battered, they were 50p each, so…. “Sailing to Freedom” is a real life story of an Estonian family sailing from Sweden to America during WW2 to escape repatriation and the consequences by the Soviet Union – sounds absolutely fascinating. As for the Maigret, it’s a title I don’t have (I think!) but was essential because of this:

I’m rather intrigued by the inclusion of an interview with Simenon, and I’m hoping to get onto this one soon – the Maigret stories are *so* readable!

I popped into the Samaritans Book Cave also, as I’m donating to them this week, and I happened upon this in their poetry section (which I always check out to see if there are any volumes of the Penguin Modern Poets I need):

Intrigued? You bet I was! I know (or can remember) very little about Dickinson’s life, and Gordon is a respected biographer, so I’m hoping for a torrid tale of family fallings-out and vicious vendettas!

And finally, a library book:

I thought I would borrow “The Stone Angel” and see if I felt like reading it and joining in with the Virago author of the month for June. Much better than buying it, especially as Mount TBR is still tremblingly high.

Well, it could have been worse – last week the library had a book sale where the volumes were 5 for £1 and I exercised great restraint and only came home with a BIG catalogue book from a Royal Academy Russian show from ten years ago. I think I did pretty well, considering… 🙂

#1951club – Feeling the heat in Paris

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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.

Rupert Davies as Maigret in the BBC adaptation of the story

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…

 

What to read for the #1951Club??

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One of the real joys of our reading clubs (where we focus on books from a particular year) is the fact that you get an excuse to rummage among the stacks and find out exactly which books from the year in question you actually own! I’ve been pretty good during previous clubs and have stuck almost completely to books I already owned. Coming to 1951 it seems I have rather a lot of volumes to choose from – and here they are in a lovely big stack! 🙂

This is probably not all the books I have in my collection from the year (there’s an Elizabeth Taylor for a start) but they’re all titles that appeal in one way or another. For a start, there’s plenty of Maigret:

I *could* just read nothing but Maigret all week – and that would be quite a pleasure! But there are other crime titles too:

I’ve read one Durrenmatt title and it was good, if dark; the Christie is that rare thing, one of her titles that I don’t think I’ve read!! And the Tey is one of my favourite crime books ever – but it gave me great grief when I was pulling books off the shelf to photograph! I knew which shelf my Teys *used* to be on, but having had a shuffle I wasn’t sure if they were still there. I looked on the shelf – not there. Searched the rest of the likely places but with no luck. Looked on the original shelf – still no joy. Looked in less likely places but to no avail. Went back to the original shelf and found them tucked up a corner behind some other ones – how do books do that??

If I need a break from crime these two are possibles – I haven’t read Steinbeck or Mitford for ages, so both would be good to pick up.

And then there are the heavier titles:

Of these, I *know* I’ve read the Greene and the Mishima; I *may* have read the Nabokov; and I don’t think I’ve read the Camus. These would probably take a bit more commitment, and I’m not sure if I’m in the right place mentally to revisit the Greene – we shall see!

So, plenty of choice from books I already own, though no doubt there will be temptation from all the interesting suggestions people come up with.  Watch this space to see what I *do* read! 🙂

#1947 Club – Pounding the Beat with Inspector Maigret

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So, coming to the end of my reading for the 1947 Club I realised that I had only been reading books I already owned – which is great! However, I was faced with the few remaining titles I’d earmarked and I honestly didn’t feel like starting any of them. I started casting around for something else on the shelves, and decided to check out my Maigrets. I didn’t think I had any of the novels from 1947, but when I began to dig into short stories I found that two fact Penguin omnibus editions I own contained several short works from 1947 – result! I was just in the mood for Maigret and so the day was saved!

maigrets

In fact, as I investigated further, it transpired that one of the collections, “Maigret’s Christmas”, contained “Maigret in Retirement”, which is listed as a 1947 novel; the line between short story and novel is often blurred with Simenon as his novels tend to be quite short anyway, and several of these stories are pretty much novellas. Whatever – it meant I had another 6 titles from 1947 ready and waiting. I’m basing my dating of the stories on the copyright dates given at the start of the book – how accurate that is, is anybody’s guess but I’m claiming these stories for the 1947 Club!

So, on to the tales themselves. First up was Maigret’s Pipe, the short title piece of the first of the two books. I actually read this and mentioned in briefly in the early days of the Ramblings, and it’s a satisfying story which really captures the essence of Maigret. Like so many of his investigations, this once comes about by chance circumstances; whilst being consulted about a very trivial seeming occurrence, the detective’s favourite pipe disappears and in following up this mystery Maigret is led onto a much larger crime which might not have otherwise been discovered.

In Maigret and the Surly Inspector, we encounter Lognon, a recurring detective in the books. Married to an invalid wife and with a constant run of back luck, here an apparent suicide takes place in his district. However, Maigret was on hand when the report came through to the police call centre, and he’s intrigued enough to follow it up. Running the investigation from behind scenes as tactfully as he can, he reveals that the suicide is most definitely not what it seems. Maigret’s long personal experience is helpful here, as it is in The Evidence of the Altar Boy. Again, there is an apparently unimportant report, an altar boy claiming to have seen a body which miraculously disappears. However, Simenon’s sleuth is able to draw on his own experience as an altar boy to get into the mindset of the young man and solve the mystery.

There are always little quirks in the stories that set off the investigation, and in The Most Obstinate Customer in the World this is simply the oddness of a customer who sits in a cafe from morning to night doing absolutely nothing. Simenon cleverly throws you straight into the action with eye-witness accounts, allowing the story to gradually unfold until the human drama behind the seemingly innocent action is revealed. And human quirks are also on display in Death of the Nobody where the murder victim is the most ordinary, regular man in the world – so why would anyone want to kill him? It takes all Maigret’s persistence and quiet determination to find out the truth.

My final 1947 read for the week was the novella Maigret in Retirement, which takes the detective very much out of his comfort zone. Maigret has indeed retired from the force and although he’s keeping his home in Paris, he’s currently in the country growing vegetables (shades of Poirot with his vegetable marrows and Holmes with his bee-keeping come to mind). However, into this relatively calm paradise explodes Bernadette Amorelle. The elderly head of a business family, she demands that Maigret comes immediately to her home to solve the mystery of the recent death of her granddaughter. Initially reluctant, Maigret finds himself drawn into her circle where he finds an old school friend made good. In fact, the whole milieu of money and status is one in which Maigret is always uncomfortable; but despite attempts to scare him off he digs into the past of the Amorelle family, revealing several shocking skeletons and bringing about a dramatic climax to the adventure.

simenon

Simenon in Maigret pose!

I’m never disappointed in a Maigret story and I wasn’t here. The setting, the mysteries and the lovely ensemble cast (Janvier, Lucas, Torrence, Mme Maigret) can always be relied upon to intrigue and entertain. However, what really stood out during these readings was Simenon’s interest for the human drama and the story behind the crime. What starts off as something banal or fairly straightforward always morphs into something unusual or quirky, and Simenon and Maigret are always concerned for the people themselves and the situations they’re in which have caused their actions. At one point, Simenon has the detective refer to his “obstinacy, his intuition and his understanding of human nature” and I think it’s the latter that’s really his strength here, and what makes him such a fine detective. I’ve seen these books criticised for lack of character development, but that really isn’t the case. Maigret himself and all his colleagues are really well-rounded, believable characters, and all the additional players are brilliantly captured by Simenon’s pen; their loves, their hates, their everyday problems and irritations, the stupidity of their lives, the cruelty, cupidity and greed. Simenon and Maigret find joy in the simple and the everyday (witnessed, for example, by Maigret’s straightforward friendship with Raymonde, the serving girl at the inn where he stays while investigating the Amorelle family – he would rather eat a meal of eggs, sausage, cheese and bread in the kitchen with her than a fine gourmet meal with the cold and corrupt family in the big house). And Simenon’s descriptions bring alive whichever location the action’s set in, so that you’re walking in the dark in the country or through the rain in Paris alongside Maigret.

So a wonderful and satisfying set of stories to finish reading from 1947. It’s been a great week and I’ve really enjoyed each and every book I’ve chosen. I’ll do a little round up post tomorrow, but meanwhile don’t forget to link any of your reviews so I can add these to the page!

A Pair of Puzzles

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Maigret and the Millionaires / Maigret and the Gangsters by Simenon

When I picked up this lovely Companion Book Club volumes of two Maigret stories from a local charity shop, I was taking a bit of a risk; because Simenon has written *so* many that I have a list of the ones I own and the ones I’ve read and I didn’t have it with me! However, I suspected I didn’t have these two and I was right; and they made a lovely read in recent times of distraction – there’s nothing like getting lost in crime novels take your mind off your troubles!

maigret

Although the stories are separated by a number of years (Millionaires was published in 1957 and Gangsters in 1951), I can see why it makes sense to publish them in a volume together. Maigret books are novella length in the main, and often appear in pairs or collections; and these two share a common theme, that of the great detective being in a milieu that is not his usual one, leaving him somewhat out of his depth.

million2

The first story finds Maigret investigating the death of Colonel Ward, a fabulously rich Englishman, found dead at his hotel in the bath. The same night, his mistress (who was staying in a room in the same hotel) had attempted suicide, been taken to hospital and next day had done a runner. Then there are her previous husbands, one of whom seems happy to help her out. Maigret ends up travelling all over the place, moving in the rarefied atmosphere of the very wealthy, and his discomfort is understandable and in some places amusing. Of course, there is never any doubt that he’ll find a solution but watching his journey is enjoyable!

gangsters

“Maigret and the Gangsters” reflects the changing world and pits the great man against some American criminals carrying out their operations in Paris, so successfully that the police aren’t even aware of things. It’s only because the hang-dog Lognon happens to spot them in a suspicious action that their crimes start to come to light. Maigret makes use of his connections in the USA to find out about the men concerned, and finds himself dealing with a different breed of criminal to those he’s used to. In fact, the book throws the whole Parisian crime scene into relief, as it’s quite clear that the organised, brutal and very efficient behaviour of the Americans is nothing like the more parochial French criminals that most of Maigret’s crimes centre around. His success is in doubt in this book – can the great French detective really outwit the wily Americans?

simenon

Of course, we are still in a recognisable Parisian setting – all rainy streets and atmosphere, evocatively captured by Simenon’s taut prose; and the detective is surrounded by his usual team, including Lucas, Janvier,Torrence and Lapointe, and in the second book the lugubrious Lognon, a recurring and long-suffering character. It amazes me how Simenon could produce so many works in a series and yet they never get tired or repetitive. There’s a great joy in spending time with the detective and his team, watching their patient and painstaking work; and also getting inside the heads of them and the criminals they’re hunting down. Simenon was very much a psychological writer, probing the motivations and emotions of both the good guys and the bad guys.

I got happily lost in these stories of detective and deception, and I’m so glad I picked this one up! If you’ve never read Simenon’s Maigret books and you love classics crime, I’d highly recommend starting soon – they’re unputdownable! 🙂

Getting back to normal (or at least trying to…)

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Because it hasn’t been very normal on the Ramblings lately, I’m afraid. While my scheduled posts were popping up during the week, I’ve been running around like a mad thing dealing with a few emergencies re the Aged Parents, involving emergency ops, finding a safe place for one AP, and kennelling their dog. It’s a good thing I wasn’t at work, really, but it wasn’t the Easter break I’d been anticipating… Fortunately things have settled a bit, and I can get a little reading in before the hols are over.

I *had* planned a little post over the Easter weekend which was to be titled “I love it when a book calls my name!” – because that’s what it felt like recently when I had quite a nice book haul. I had a few little arrivals from various sources and they went something like this:

roadside

“Roadside Picnic” by the brother Strugatsky came through the post – I’ve loved both the books of theirs that I’ve read so I figured it was about time I read their most famous work (and I did love Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” that was based on this book).

aldanov

Two lovely old books by Mark Aldanov, also through the post – inspired by the interesting post here, on the Russian Dinosaur blog – I love discovering new (old) Russian authors. And aren’t the covers lovely??

gallant

I wish I could remember where I heard about Mavis Gallant and this book of hers – but I can’t. However, it sounded lovely and I ordered a cheap copy online – the first version that arrived had the right dustjacket with completely the wrong book inside it… Fortunately, a replacement was forthcoming….

The rest of the books to follow were charity shop finds, and very nice ones too!

maigret

First up, a couple of Simenon titles in a nice old Book Club edition: “Maigret and the Millionaires” and “Maigret and the Gangsters” – which were perfect reading for recent stressful times.

horror

This one I’m not too sure about, however. It sounded good from the blurb, so I risked 75p, but when I looked it up online, I read quite a few negatives about the quality of the writing and the lack of original content. I’m not sure if I should spend any time on it – has anyone read it, and have they any opinions??

Down in the Samaritans Book Cave, I spotted this:

ratushinskaya

I have Ratushinskaya’s memoir, but I didn’t know she’d done a novel too – and it should hopefully be right up my street! I scanned the rest of the shelves and didn’t spot anything, so was just about to go and pay a paltry 50p for the above, when I swear a book was calling to me…

fitzgerald

Even though I’d checked out the fiction section, my eyes must have slid over this one without seeing it, because I’ve been looking for it for ages! And it must have known and called out to me, because something made me go back and check to see if it was there and it was! So a lovely few new books  have arrived, and I feel no guilt because there are four large boxes of books in the garage on their way out and more to follow. Now I just need to get my brain back into gear to do a little more reading…. 🙂

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