The Fifth Simenon Omnibus

Maigret’s Boyhood Friend was first published as L’Ami d’enfance de Maigret in 1968. It was translated into English by Eileen Ellenbogen. Leon Florentin is Maigret’s boyhood friend, with whom he went to school, and hasn’t seen since. Now Florentin is involved with a murder. Maigret soon realises that the clown of the form at school has come down in the world and is now a con man. He’s not only a swindler, but a kind of pimp. And as it turns out, a liar.

The murder is that of a young woman called Josée Papet, who entertains three elderly ‘friends’ in her apartment once a week: each has his day. She also supports the ineffectual Florentin, but may have found a substitute, someone she really loves. Now she has been shot, and Maigret must find the murderer.

The story has some interesting reflections on guilt, as the guilty one turns out to be Florentin, though he is not guilty of murder but of less punishable crimes. The murder, on the other hand, is not really a murder, or rather, is not technically, but is so morally. This is also a rare case where Simenon shows himself the equal of Agatha Christie in plotting, something he is not normally interested in doing. The three suspects all leave clues indicating their guilt, but only one is guilty. One almost expects Maigret to make remarks about little grey cells. Like all detective stories though, this one has no characterisation (except that of Maigret) so I didn’t much care which of the three ciphers pulled the trigger. Rather a dull Maigret I thought.

Big Bob was first published as Le Grand Bob in 1954 and translated by Eileen M Lowe. Robert Dandurand has died, a cheerful, popular rogue of a man known to his many friends as ‘Big Bob’. Did he die accidentally? Did he commit suicide? What kind of a man was he anyway? His friend Charles starts an investigation into the life of Bob, trying to understand how he died, and why.

Bob and his wife Lulu had a large circle of friends. They were always surrounded by people, attracted by Bob’s cheerfulness and ready wit. Charles discovers that Bob is the son of a distinguished lawyer, and was destined for the law himself, but had fled his wealthy family and chosen to live on his wits in Montmartre, where he met his wife to be, an almost prostitute called Lulu. Driven by urges he himself doesn’t understand, Bob has a philosophy. If only every person in the world could make just one other person happy, what a wonderful world it would be. Bob chooses to make Lulu happy, and he becomes the centre of her world. Charles discovers that behind the drunkenness, easy virtue and raffishness of the life Bob and Lulu share, there is a great love story. Fenton Bresler says in The Mystery of Georges Simenon that this story was based on fact, on the life of one of Simenon’s relatives.

There’s an unsteady treatment to the story that distracted me from the involvement I usually experience with Simenon’s books. Most of them are lived through imaginative crises of Simenon’s, and I find make compelling reading. Perhaps because he is here telling a ‘true’ story, Simenon seems a little external, as it were, seeing from the outside. There’s no doubt the story is extremely touching. Bob chooses a death that will look like an accident, and conceals from Lulu the illness he is suffering from. It’s his way of caring for her. She is distraught that he hadn’t confided in her. Bob’s paternalistic attitude has made him Lulu’s support in life: without him, she withers and dies. We are left with a portrait of Bob that paints him halfway between a saint and an emotional fraud, and probably that ambiguity was important for Simenon to show (most of us fall between two stereotypes).

November was first published as Novembre in 1969 and translated by Jean Stewart. The Le Cloanec family live an isolated life in a gloomy house outside Paris. The daughter of the family, Laure, tells their story in November, a gloomy story set in a gloomy winter month. Her mother feels neglected, and has taken to drink; her father and younger brother compete for the favors of their Spanish maid Manuela, and slowly leave their isolated regime, each cut off from the other, to quarrel over her. Laure herself despairs over her family, and has involved herself deeply in her work as a medical researcher. She has become the mistress of her chief, though he is married and can offer her no future, feeling the need to sacrifice herself for his good.

This intolerable regime goes on, and no family member can help another. Then the maid Manuela, the one bright, cheerful person in the household, disappears. Laure fears her unstable mother has murdered her. The mystery is never solved, but the maid’s disappearance does encourage Laure to reassess her mother, and to feel some pity for her. Professor Shimak, her lover, suffers a grievous blow when his wife dies in a car accident, and slowly the balance of Laure’s relationship with the Professor changes, into something less self-sacrificing on her part and more fulfilling. This wintry book seems to be saying that in every deadlocked relationship there can be a ray of hope, and that sometimes it takes a crisis for us to see it. This is not Simenon at his best. The evocation of the house and the characters who live there is as authentic as ever, but the insight into these peoples’ motivations seems somehow obscured.

The Fifth Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1972. Maigret’s Boyhood Friend, 1968, rated ◊◊◊◊; Big Bob, 1954, rated ◊◊◊◊◊; November, 1969, rated ◊◊◊◊.

©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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