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#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! ๐Ÿ™‚

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.ย  Watch this space to see what I *do* read! ๐Ÿ™‚

#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.

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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!

Some newbies hit the shelves…

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It’s a busy time of year for me at work, and I’ve been struggling a little to keep up with the reading; and so I’ve tried to stem the amount of books coming into the house. But that usually fails a bit, and there *are* a few new arrivals I’d like to share with you! ๐Ÿ™‚

I’m still taking donations to the local charity stores and doing quite well at not bringing replacements home. However, these two slipped into my bag somehow – well, they really couldn’t be left behind…

simenon st exupery

The Saint-Exupery is a title I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and such a beautiful Penguin edition in lovely condition couldn’t be ignored. As for the Simenon, well I’m intrigued – it’s one of his non-Maigret titles and is set in a Soviet port in the 1930s, where the new Turkish Consul has an affair with a local woman and has to deal with the consequences. I’m really keen to read this one soon!

The other arrivals are all new books, which is rather fab! First up, a prize in a giveaway from the lovely Pushkin Press:

Affections

Again, this one sounds really good and I can’t wait to read it. The other books are all review ones, planned for forthcoming editions of Shiny New Books:

PMP new

New Penguin Modern Poets – what more can I say????

Grand

Grand Hotel – very excited about this one too, as it’s being raved about.

And finally, the reason I’m not reading much else at the moment:

adolesc

600 pages of Dostoevskian loveliness! So if my reviews are not so frequent for a while, you’ll know why! ๐Ÿ™‚

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 localย 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! ๐Ÿ™‚

Recent Reads: Monsieur Monde Vanishes

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OK, I’ll admit that I have been reading a *lot* of Russians recently – which isn’t boring to me at all, but might perhaps bore any readers I have a little! So I decided to pick up one of the Simenon books I’ve had lying around for a while as I figured this would be a bit of a change and also reduce the tbr somewhat…. (it certainly needs it!)

Monsieur Monde Vanishes was first published in 1945 and opens with Mme. Monde visiting a police station on a dark, cold November night to report her husband missing. We could be at the start of any Maigret novel and I almost expected the inspector to walk onto the set from one of the doors at the side! However, this is not a detective novel but instead one of Simenon’s psychological studies and we switch viewpoints straight away to that of M. Monde to learn why he has taken this drastic step.

monde

Norbert Monde is to all intents and purposes a successful man. Prosperous owner of an established business, he lives in his family home with his wife, son and has a married daughter. His daily routine is regular and ostensibly comfortable, but in fact his life is a hollow shell. His first wife, mother of his children, left him under strange circumstances with hints of sexual depravity. He suspects his son is gay and is not comfortable with it, or particularly close to the boy. His married daughter is always after money. And his second wife is a cold, domineering hard-faced harridan. On the day he disappears, which is his birthday, several small events take him over the tipping point and he withdraws a large sum of money from his bank and gets on a train to the South of France.

M. Monde is off on a journey of adventure, out of his stultifying everyday life and into what seems to him to be real life. He is initially timid but soon it becomes natural to him to mix with the underbelly of French life – dance hall girls, pimps, thieves – who seem more honest than him. He is not clear initially what he wants, except that he does not want the life he had. He saves Julie, a hostess, from a suicide attempt and they strike up an unlikely liaison. When his money is stolen, she finds him a job in a club and he settles there quite happily, existing alongside the other night owls in the brightly lit landscape of the Mediterranean coast. He takes on a new name and begins to experience what he feels is reality:

“He turned over heavily on his hard bed that smelt of sweat. He had grown used to the smell of his own sweat again, jus as when he had been a child. For too many years, for the greater part of his life, he had forgotten the smell of sweat, the smell of the sun, all those living smells of which people who go about their business are no longer conscious, and he wondered if that were not the reason why…”

However, the reappearance of his first wife, in unexpected circumstances, kick-starts him into a new course of action and he takes control of his life in a way that the reader might not have predicted (certainly I didn’t!)

This really is a marvellous book, for many reasons. Firstly, there is Simenon’s writing – compact, lucid, and clever enough to get right inside the head of his characters. His descriptions of M. Monde’s emotions while he is travelling, and the sight of the bright Mediterranean are just wonderful. Then there is the plotting and characterisation – entirely convincing and believable, and with plenty of twists and turns to keep you on your toes. Simenon can conjure up an atmosphere like few other writers and the reader feels he is alongside the characters, experiencing what they are experiencing.

Simenon

Simenon

M. Monde is no saint, but you end up feeling for him very much. His journey begins as a running away, from his life, his second wife and the desperately restricting boredom. But it ends up being a journey to something – to rediscovering who he is, for recognising what he wants to do and developing the strength to do it. At the end of the story he superficially returns to his old life but things have changed – he is in control, and will do what he wants, not what his first and second wives want. The book ends positively, with Monde thinking he will build a relationship with his son and live in his house the way he wishes.

“He was a man who, for a long time, had endured man’s estate without being conscious of it, as others endure an illness of which they are unaware.”

Simenon is mainly known in the English-speaking world for Maigret, and on the evidence of this story his other fictions should be just as highly regarded. My edition is an older Penguin but I believe NYRB have reprinted several of his roman durs (as they are known) for which they should be congratulated! I have “The Man Who Watched the Trains go By” on my tbr and I think it will coming off the mountain soon!

Recent Reads: Maigret’s Failure by Simenon

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One of my long-term mottoes is “If in doubt, read a crime Penguin” – and since I was undecided about what to read next, this seemed the best idea! The volume in question is a recent vintage green acquisition and is a middle-period Maigret (1950s).

The book opens with a beleaguered police departments suffering from flu, illness and staff shortages. As so often with Simenon’s books, the atmosphere comes alive and we feel as we are in a rainy, dull Paris suffering alongside the characters. The police department is investigating the disappearance of an Englishwoman on a coach trip, and finding absolutely no clues, when an old friend from school turns up needing help.

“Friend” is perhaps the wrong word. Fumal was known at school as “Fattie Fumal” and was not a popular boy. He has grown up into an unpleasant businessman, owning a large butchers conglomerate. To get to this point in his life he has made many enemies on the way and destroyed a number of other businesses. Now Fumal is receiving threatening letters and wants help and protection, so he uses his influence with politicians to pressurise Maigret into seeing him. But our detective has unhappy memories of his school days and the effect that Fumal’s father had on Maigret’s own father, so he is reluctant to help.

Needless to say, Fumal is murdered and Maigret finds himself wondering if he did enough to help the man. Battling the weather conditions and the illness in the department, Maigret investigates and finds a solution – so where is the failure of the title?

As this is a Simenon book, there is a lot more than just a straight detective story. There various players in the drama are revealed to have secret lives, past histories and things they don’t want Maigret to know. It seems that all of the members of Fumal’s household have a motive for the murder and it takes a lot of disentangling to find out who it was that actually committed the act.

This was an excellent Maigret – full of well drawn characters, intriguing and atmospheric. I realised while reading it that one of the things I like about Simenon is his economy of style. For example, a sentence like “Aren’t you having a car sent round?” enquired Madame Maigret, who made herself as small as possible on such occasions tells you all you need to know about Maigret’s state of mind on finding out that Fumal has been murdered.

And the failure? Well, it could be argued that Maigret feels he has failed Fumal by not preserving his life. But there is also failure in that the killer escapes and eludes capture; similarly, the missing Englishwomen is not found by the authorities. But Simenon gives us resolution in the last few pages and as usual with his novels, this was a satisfying read!

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