The Sixth and Seventh Simenon Omnibus

Maigret and the Wine Merchant was first published as Maigret et le marchand de vin in 1970. It was translated by Eileen Ellenbogen. Oscar Chabut was a very successful man. He had started from nothing and made himself proprietor of one of the most successful wine businesses in France. But he had a chip on his shoulder, a need to humiliate and dominate every man and woman he dealt with. Someone had enough. Leaving a bordello one evening, Chabut is shot dead. There seem to be too many suspects, far too many. Maigret finds himself following one false lead after another. Then an anonymous caller telephones him to accuse Chabut, and later, Maigret receives several anonymous letters repeating these accusations. The substance of both calls and letters seem to be true: Chabut was a “filthy swine”, though as usual Maigret tries to understand just why he behaved as he did. But it is clear the caller and writer of these accusations is the murderer, and as is often the case, he gives himself up and confesses. Maigret must send a man to jail with whom he secretly sympathises. Halfway between a crime puzzle and a character study, the story works as neither. A lesser Maigret.

The Prison was first published as La Prison in 1968, and was translated into English by Lyn Moir. The man in prison is Alain Poitaud, an ex-journalist on an almost unbelievable trajectory of success. First the magazine he founded has become one of the most successful in France. The magazine, Toi, is designed to saturate the everyday reader with a surfeit of everyday facts and images, and the formula works. Another of Alain’s magazines looks as though it will be equally successful. Poitaud starts writing and recording songs, and again is successful. He is not only rich, but a star. But then his wife, his closest companion, is arrested for the murder of her sister, an ex-lover of Poitaud, as are most of the attractive women he comes in contact with. Poitard is not involved with the murder, which comes as a complete shock to him. Trying to understand what has happened, he discovers he does not know anything about his wife. She is just one of the many companions he is compelled to surround himself with. His wife and her sister, in fact, have preferred a relationship with someone who is not a star, one of his own staff members, and have become rivals. Slowly he realises he has no relationships with any of these people, no relationships at all. They are merely hangers on. And Poitaud has wanted it this way because of an enormous fear within himself, the driving power of his success, but which has produced only a simulacrum of friends and family. He has built himself a prison. Shattered by this discovery, Poitaud’s world collapses like a house of cards, and he kills himself. Perhaps an interesting reflection on Simenon’s own spectacular success, and failed marriages, this characterisation of Poitaud is yet unconvincing, and feels schematic and contrived, not developed as we have come to expect of Simenon.

The Rich Man was first published as Le Riche homme in 1970; it was translated by Jean Stewart. It is the story of Victor Lecoin, the big man of his village, Marsilly, where he controls the oyster and mussel fishing. Lecoin has started from nothing, worked hard all his life, invested in land, and become rich. He is an imposing figure, tall, muscular, with enormous endurance, of work and of alcohol, and of enormous sexual stamina as well. His closest companion is the equally enormous deaf mute Doudou. His wife, the village schoolmistress, whom he looks up to, has become his close business partner and nothing more. When a destitute orphan, Alice, is taken on as maid, Lecoin finds himself for the first time in his life falling in love. Somehow detached from all those around him, Lecoin has suppressed a longing for intimacy, and he now tries to establish this with the girl Alice, scarcely sixteen and a previous victim of sexual abuse, behind his wife’s back. It is an attempt doomed to failure. Alice is passive, submissive, unresponsive. Lecoin, mustering all the tenderness he is capable of, tries to arouse her. But Alice has learned that “men are like that” and will do nothing more than allow his caresses. During Lecoin’s absence from his village Alice is approached by another man and submits to him. The deaf mute Doudou, unfailingly loyal to Lecoin, drives the man away and kills Alice. Lecoin is left trying to understand just why his attempt to find love hasn’t worked. This is another portrait of an outwardly successful man with failed relationships, like The Prison of 1968, and again may be the product of self examination on Simenon’s part. I found the climax overly melodramatic, and the process that Lecoin goes through not fully developed. For all its impressive portrait of the village and the people and their way of life, this is another Simenon misfire, even if more interesting than most other authors’.

The Sixth Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1973. Maigret and the Wine Merchant, 1970, rated ◊◊◊◊; The Prison, 1968, rated ◊◊◊◊; The Rich Man, 1970, rated ◊◊◊◊.

Maigret and the Killer was first published as Maigret et le tueur in 1969. It was translated into English by Lyn Moir. Like the following year’s Maigret and the Wine Merchant, this is a story about an apparently unmotivated crime. A young man is struck down by knife blows as he walks home through the evening streets of Paris, near the residence of Doctor Pardon, Maigret’s friend, where Maigret and his wife are visiting at the time. The doctor, and then Maigret, become involved, and it soon becomes evident there is no reason for the crime, that a psychopathic killer has struck for the sheer need to experience a kill. A weakness of this story is the apparent connection of the murder with a series of thefts, still unsolved, which Maigret must first investigate, at length, to see there is no connection to the murder at all. As usual with Simenon, the murderer is seen from the inside, a sad man struggling with a horrendous urge he cannot control. There is little detection though, as the man contacts Maigret and gives himself up. In fact, not a lot happens in the story, and it had little impact for me. Maigret is predictably disappointed when the killer is given a heavy sentence for the murder, but the killer is hardly a fully realised character, and so Maigret’s response seems perfunctory and low key.

The Confessional was first published as Le Confessionnel in 1966, and was translated by Jean Stewart. André Bar has problem parents. As he slowly builds up a relationship with Francine, a girl he likes at school, he becomes aware of the dysfunctional family he has been born into. Francine’s family is quite different. Her mother and father have a warm, open relationship, into which their daughter fits quite intimately. They all trust one another. But in André’s family distrust is the norm. It’s a harsh lesson for André: his mother feels unattractive, and clings to her fleeing physical charms by cultivating a bohemian friend whom she doesn’t really like, and by having random affairs. André’s father can show her compassion, but not tenderness. Both parents turn to their son to justify their behaviour, and to make him their ally in this misalliance. To make matters worse, André finds his mother has taken to drink to relieve her unhappiness. André fights for his freedom to pursue his own life, conduct his own blossoming relationships, while his parents unavailingly try to justify their failure to have a viable relationship. André has become their confessional, not just their son. This sketch is unresolved, ending as it had begun, the situation of the Bar family unchanged. But it’s a sketch without drama, penetrating and acute in its analysis but not involving.

Maigret Takes the Waters was first published in 1968 as Maigret à Vichy. It was translated by Eileen Ellenbogen. Maigret is taking the cure at Vichy under doctor’s orders, together with his wife. While there, he enjoys himself by noting the patients and their oddities. One woman he takes note of is later found strangled, and Maigret is unavoidably drawn into the investigation. It is not a matter of robbery, but seems a crime of passion. Yet the woman had no friends, almost no acquaintances, seemingly a real loner. Her only relative is her sister, and when she arrives to take charge of the funeral some interesting facts emerge. The dead woman had a regular source of income from an unknown donor, from which both sisters benefited. It suggests blackmail to Maigret, and he deduces the killer may be the one blackmailed, and a man connected in some personal way with the dead woman and perhaps a patient at Vichy. What he uncovers in the end is a deception of such cold-hearted cruelty that he thinks the murder almost justified. He finds and arrests his man, who is in the end exonerated for his crime under French law. This is quite a good tale of detection, but very low key.

The Seventh Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1974. Maigret and the Killer, 1969, rated ◊◊◊◊; The Confessional, 1966, rated ◊◊◊◊; Maigret Takes the Waters, 1968, rated ◊◊◊◊.

Having reached the half way mark in reviewing the 14 Penguin Omnibuses it seems a good time to sum up my impression so far. Of the 21 novels I’ve read, nine are well above average, and four in my opinion are masterpieces. The publication period is 1952 to 1970, and there appears to be a sharp falling off, the last seven books written being all below average. Simenon was to abruptly stop writing fiction in 1973: perhaps his inspiration was already flagging in 1968. The above average books are half Maigret stories, half ‘hard’ novels, so it’s not the case that Simenon put his genius into the ‘hard’ novels and merely his talent into the Maigrets. I would call Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1952), The Little Saint (1965), The Old Man Dies (1966) and Maigret’s Pickpocket (1967) masterpieces. On this sample, that would give Simenon close to 100 masterpieces over his whole output should the same proportion hold. As there is no work before the 50s (so far) it remains unclear if Maigret’s best work came early, or late, or was evenly distributed over his career.

A guide to the Maigret books can be found here:

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


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