The Patience of Maigret was first published as La Patience de Maigret in 1965. It was translated into English by Alastair Hamilton. The story is about a 20 year series of jewel thefts which have baffled the police. At the centre of things is an ex slum boy, Palmari, who has become an underworld king pin, with whom Maigret nevertheless feels a certain affinity. Now someone has shot Palmeri, confined to a wheelchair after surviving a previous attack, someone close to him, and Maigret is on the case. The main locale is an apartment block where Palmeri lived, and Simenon takes us through a dozen case histories as Maigret investigates.
Rare in a Simenon book we have an aside from the author, a reflection of Maigret’s: “Basically there was fear. He had often discussed it late at night with Doctor Pardon who had also had an experience of men and was not far from sharing his conclusions. Everybody is afraid. People try to erase children’s fear by reading fairy stories and the minute a child goes to school he is afraid to show his parents a copybook with bad marks. Fear of water. Fear of fire. Fear of animals. Fear of the dark. Fear at fifteen or sixteen of choosing badly one’s destiny, of failing one’s life…” It is this fear all trail behind them which results in violence, and violence which leads to crime. For Maigret, it is understanding the fear driving his suspects, without prejudice but with compassion, that enables him to understand motive. Proceeding by intuition in a way no police officer would ever admit doing, Maigret is like a bloodhound. He goes by smell.
Unusually in a detective story it is an incident of the war years 20 years earlier on which the solution hangs. Viewers who have seen Rene Clement’s 1952 film Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games) will recall the opening section of that film as Maigret reconstructs the event. But it’s the bars and nightclubs, the food and the weather one remembers afterwards, not the plot.
The Accomplices was first published as Les Complices in 1955. It was translated by Bernard Frechtman. This is a story where Simenon invites comparison with Patricia Highsmith, as he draws the reader further and further into the mind of a rather repellent man guilty of a crime. Or is he guilty? The contrast between the two writers is illuminating: Highsmith takes ordinary, mundane facts and occurrences, statements and observations, and imperceptibly twists them into unbalanced, obsessive reactions until the reader doubts their own sanity and reads on with horror as the plot unfolds. Simenon works in the reverse direction, as it were, showing how horrific acts and repellent attitudes are formed gradually by details rooted in everyday, fully realised events and environments. The context, so superbly rendered, is an important part of his technique.
Joseph Lambert is the head of a successful building firm, a big wheel in his little town, yet somehow out of place. His father was a mason, a working class man who was in the right place at the right time, and with the aid of two of his sons, became prosperous. Joseph’s brother Marcel takes advantage of this upward mobility to better himself, but somehow the elder brother Joseph, a drinker and womanizer who scandalises everyone, cannot. He is just a proletariat with a lot of money. One day Joseph, making love to his secretary in his car, causes an accident which results in the death of a busload of school children. The event finally destroys him, and Simenon’s book is an examination into his guilt, of what he was guilty of, and whether he was indeed guilty.
With his trademark compassion Simenon portrays a sullen, selfish man that most people, even his wife, dislike, yet shows him to be trapped in a life he does not desire and has no affinity for, a man reaching for his place, and affirming his unhappiness by drunkeness, seductions, rudeness, and feeling this behaviour is justified. He is not guilty, he tells himself. Even the horrific accident he was the cause of was a result of what he sees as a search for fulfillment. It is easy to dismiss Joseph as a monster. For Simenon there are no monsters.
Maigret’s Pickpocket was published as Le Voleur de Maigret in 1967. It was translated by Nigel Ryan. A thief steals Maigret’s wallet on a bus, then returns it in an apparent fit of remorse. Interviewed, he discloses the horrific death of his wife, who has been shot. Maigret begins an investigation into the murder, which has happened on the fringes of the film world. His confidant, his pickpocket, is a tortured genius whose poverty has deformed him. The circle of his acquaintances whom Maigret meets confuse the real with the apparent.
Maigret is…Maigret. To understand the crime he has to understand the people concerned. Simenon, who knew quite a bit about the film world (he was a regular at Cannes, where he sometimes judged, and an intimate of Federico Fellini) describes the financial poseurs who act as producers, the actresses who will do anything for a part, the writers and directors hungering to be proclaimed as geniuses, the hangers on who put their careers on hold for easy film money. For anyone with an interest in cinema this is a fascinating depiction.
Unlike many detective stories this tale is so beautifully balanced between a depiction of a milieu and a description of a crime and its solution that it holds its fascination literally until the very last page.
The Second Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1970. The Patience of Maigret, 1965, rated ◊◊◊◊◊; The Accomplices, 1955, rated ◊◊◊◊◊; Maigret’s Pickpocket, 1967, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊.
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