Vive Maigret! Simenon's Smoke-Filled Tales, Reinspected

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By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers@aol.com
Monday, December 18, 2006

THE BAR ON THE SEINE

By Georges Simenon

Translated from the French by David Watson

Penguin. 154 pp. Paperback, $12

THE HOTEL MAJESTIC

By Georges Simenon

Translated from the French by David Watson

Penguin. 170 pp. Paperback, $12

I recently reread a number of acclaimed novels by early crime writers -- among them Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Ross Macdonald -- that I first read decades ago, and I was surprised to find how often I was disappointed. Alas, the books we loved in our youth, like the sweet young things we dallied with, often have not aged well. Our memories play tricks on us, our expectations have changed, and sometimes we have been misled by movies that vastly improved on the original material -- the film versions of "The Maltese Falcon" and "Double Indemnity" are examples. Nostalgia is the sweetest of drugs, but it will cloud our minds, distort our memories and lead us into error if we let it.

It was thus with some reluctance that I turned to these newly reissued Inspector Maigret novels by Georges Simenon, who in his lifetime (1903-89) wrote 75 Maigret mysteries, won international acclaim and numbered among his admirers such diverse figures as Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, André Gide and Henry Miller. Could he really be that good?

Yes, he could be, and is. These two, at least -- "The Bar on the Seine" (1931) and "The Hotel Majestic" (1942) -- are solid police procedurals, but beyond that they are charming and sometimes magical evocations of a Paris now long vanished. Simenon was interested in crime and criminals, but he was just as interested in lovers, relationship, bars, food, wine, merrymaking and all the sweet madness of life. His Inspector Maigret, middle-aged and stocky, forever puffing on his pipe, prone to drink too much and seemingly lethargic, is unlike any other detective I've encountered. If he suspects a fellow of murder, he's less likely to arrest the guy than to join him for a few shots of Pernod in some dingy bar. But he always gets his man.

At the start of "The Bar on the Seine," a condemned killer tells Maigret that a man who committed a murder frequents an obscure bar on a distant bank of the river. Maigret seeks out the ramshackle place and finds a mock wedding in progress, with most people in costume and feeling no pain. "The first person he met was a woman dressed all in white, who almost ran into him. She was wearing orange blossom in her hair. She was being chased by a young man in a swimming-costume." The woman is the "bride" in the wedding and she is also, the inspector realizes, the same woman he'd seen earlier that day leaving a cheap hotel with a man other than her husband.

He learns that a group of perhaps 20 friends meet at this bar every weekend to eat, drink, dance, swim and sometimes pursue affairs. The party lasts into the next day. There are Chinese lanterns, a player piano, boats and picnics. It's a long, luminous scene, filled with laughter, sunlight and abandon, that captures the poignancy of humankind's endless pursuit of pleasure. At the end, a man is shot dead -- by his wife's lover, who insists it was an accident.

For the rest of the novel, Maigret examines these people's lives, romances and financial affairs until finally justice is done. There are many nice moments along the way, such as this very French snapshot of a minor character: "She wasn't especially beautiful. But she had a seductive quality, particularly in her mourning dress which, rather than making her look sad, made her look even more alluring. She was curvy, vivacious; she would have made an excellent mistress."

The other novel also turns on an affair of the heart. The wife of an American businessman, staying in a suite in the Hotel Majestic on the Champs-Elysees, is found dead in the basement of the hotel. Simenon vividly contrasts life in the dark, crowded basement, filled with bustling cooks and waiters, with the luxury upstairs.

It develops that the American is having an affair with his son's governess and that his dead wife was French, a former dancehall girl who had a history with one of the cooks. However, Maigret cannot believe this rather simple fellow is a killer, and there are more suspicious characters about. Here, too, Simenon offers many fine touches. When he notes that one man's nose "was set so crookedly, that one always seemed to be seeing him in profile," I suspected homage to Picasso. Although the novel was published in 1942, there is no mention of the Nazi occupation -- this is an earlier, happier Paris when murders were still manageable.

Are these novels dated? A bit in the physical details-- women wear girdles, not all homes have telephones, everyone smokes constantly -- but not in the writing. More than anything else, they are dated by their minimal violence. Guns are rarely used, and a punch in the nose is as shocking as a shootout today. It happens that Hammett introduced his hard-drinking, two-fisted, cop-baiting Sam Spade at about the time the first of these novels appeared, and I wondered what Maigret would have done if he'd confronted that bellicose American. Bought him a Pernod, probably, puffed on a pipe and listened to his story. Wry, understated, humanistic, these Maigret books are as timeless as Paris itself.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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