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The Eleventh Omnibus
The Venice Train was first published in 1961 as Le Train de Venise, and was translated into English by Alastair Hamilton. It begins as intriguingly as an Eric Ambler story with mild mannered clerk Justin Calmar accosted by a mysterious stranger on a train when returning from his annual holidays and asked to perform a seemingly simple task. He is to remove a briefcase from a railway station locker and deliver it to an address nearby. Justin, who has always done the right thing, in his career, marriage and as a father, is willing to oblige. But things go wrong when Justin goes to the address provided and finds it occupied only by a murdered woman. Not knowing what to do, he flees, and later opens the briefcase, to find a million and a half French francs inside, all genuine notes. Later still he reads a newspaper report that the man who gave him the job of delivering the briefcase has also been found murdered. The money seems to be his to keep. This is where Justin’s problems begin. But Simenon is no Eric Ambler, he has other interests, in this case the effects his predicament has on Justin, slowly eroding the trust he has enjoyed with his wife as he has to lie to explain his movements and sudden prosperity. Although this is momentarily amusing, as is the similar scene in Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties which deals with the problem of how to get rid of a corpse, much more difficult than usually presented in fiction, The Venice Train runs out of steam half way through. The second half merely reiterates the predicament of Justin, over and over. A perfunctorily and unconvincing ending leave a feeling of dissatisfaction.
Maigret and the Millionaires was first published as Maigret Voyage in 1958, and was translated into English by Jean Stewart. This is a competent little detective tale but it is notable more for the social comedy of the stolidly lower middle class Maigret dealing uncomfortably with the clientele of international hotels, and the millionaires of the title, as he investigates the murder of a VIP. Also amusing is the contrast drawn between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’, between the guests and the people who serve them. Maigret comes to the conclusion that the rich need the level of service they receive, would be helpless without it. And that in some circumstances some of them might kill to retain the status quo that protects them. Once he intuits his motive he draws the net around his man. Perhaps one of the weaknesses of Simenon’s approach to the detective story, with its emphasis on understanding criminal psychology, is that in so many of them the criminals confess, seem to want to confess, as though they want others to understand. Are there many criminals like this? This is a novelist’s emphasis, not the result of the bureaucratic machinery of detection that exists in real life. This story of a personal assistant, John Arnold, who murders his employer the multimillionaire Colonel Ward to protect the income of the divorcée he wants to marry shows the brilliant insight into character typical of Simenon, but here it serves the simple plot device of a tale of detection. Entertaining, none the less.
The Innocents was first published as Les Innocents in 1972, and translated into English by Eileen Ellenbogen. This is the story of Georges Célerin, a peasant from the Caen district who has become a successful goldsmith in Paris and married the only woman he has ever loved. He was married for 20 years, and blissfully happy, in his work, with his family, with his lot. Then one day his wife Annette was killed by a truck. She was in a part of Paris where she normally didn’t go, and slipped on wet pavement crossing a busy road. Suddenly Georges’ blissful world was destroyed. True, the relationship was not perfect. Annette seemed unresponsive and uncommitted, involved in her job as a social worker rather than with her husband and two children. But Georges was content to accept things the way they were. Simenon created two perfectly believable characters, and outlined their history with deft and insightful detail. Trying desperately to pull himself together after the tragedy that has shattered his life, Georges began to follow the trail of his wife’s activities. He makes some unwelcome discoveries. He found that for 18 years she had led a second life as the mistress of his business partner Brassier. Here was the reason for Annette’s lack of commitment. She and Brassier were deeply in love, yet neither was free to leave their spouse. Instead they led a secret life. Georges was devastated all over again, and struggled to retrieve what he could after this revelation. He began to appreciate the close bond he had with his children, and with his colleagues. Simenon is successful here in creating that rare thing in fiction, a believable good person. It is just because Georges accepts so gratefully what he is given by life that he is liked by those who know him, who think him simple and unpretentious despite all his success in his career. Yet this same acceptance has prevented Georges from seeing the real situation in his marriage. This is a tragedy written with tremendous feeling and great artistry, one of Simenon’s best novels. It was his last.
The Eleventh Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1977. The Venice Train, 1961, rated ◊◊◊; Maigret and the Millionaires, 1958, rated ◊◊◊◊◊; The Innocents, 1972, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊.
The Twelfth Omnibus
Maigret and the Gangsters was first published in 1952 as Maigret, Lognon et les Gangsters, and was translated into English by Louise Varèse. The gangsters of the title are the American Mafia variety, in Paris to eliminate a witness against them. They have an influential American politician to protect them, and act with callous disregard for the conventions known to French criminals. So many people tell Maigret that these men are dangerous, killers, out of his league, that he should leave the matter of stopping them to the ADA from St Louis on their trail, that he becomes infuriated. Besides, they have attacked a member of the Murder Squad, and Maigret himself has been threatened. The lugubrious Lognon, and even worse, Madame Lognon, are also involved. Lognon, a self pitying officer with a chip on his shoulder about not being promoted, discovers the crime, and then gets in everyone’s way. The story is a thriller reminiscent of Maigret stories of the 30s, with car chases, gun fights, beatings, kidnapping, tough guys, floozies and lots of booze. It may be Chandleresque, but the setting is solidly Parisian. Simenon seems as interested in the humour of contrasting Maigret with Lognon on the one hand and the American thugs on the other as he is in unravelling the plot. One of the more entertaining Maigret stories.
The Magician was first published as Antoine et Julie in 1953, and was translated into English by Helen Sebba. This is one of the more sobering of Simenon’s novels, a dour tale of co-relationship in a marriage, between the alcoholic Antoine, who works as a professional conjurer at seedy town hall functions and school concerts and earns a good living, but can’t stay away from the booze; and Julie, a fat, middle aged woman desperate for a relationship at any cost. Told almost exclusively from Antoine’s viewpoint, it is a familiar Simenon questioning of self fulfillment, which as usual turns out to be self delusion. For me the story lacked development, getting to the milieu and basic situation with Simenon’s usual skill, but not going very far or very deep from there. This eventually became a powerfully depressing tale. Antoine has all the alcoholic’s skill in analysing his situation and lack of ability to do anything about it, and Julie seems just as doomed to self destruction. She has a heart condition which Antoine’s drinking exacerbates, yet neither can moderate their behaviour, he the drinking, she the anxiety, until tragedy intervenes. Then Antoine know: he is an alcoholic, and can not continue to make excuses. He does not need to drink to excess any more, but he does need to drink. One has to ask. Is this all there is?
Maigret and the Dosser was first published as Maigret et le Clochard in 1963, and translated into English by Jean Stewart. This is a lesser Maigret, which depends on an incredible coincidence for its plot structure. The “dosser” of the title is the chief character, a witness to a crime of which he won’t speak and now the victim of an attempted murder. Simenon is mainly interested in this character, but is unable to develop his story except in a perfunctory way. Yet it still takes the focus of the book away from Maigret’s investigation and leaves the book without a centre. The crime is extremely unlikely, even for a routine detective story, which this book is. Maigret is unsuccessful in proving his case, because it is all his own supposition, without a shred of evidence, and very fanciful indeed. No wonder the man accursed sneers at him. And Simenon seems unsuccessful in doing what he set out to do with the book, which might have developed into a novel more successfully than remaining the basis for a detective story.
The Twelfth Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1977. Maigret and the Gangsters, 1952, rated ◊◊◊◊◊; The Magician, 1953, rated ◊◊◊; Maigret and the Dosser, 1963, rated ◊◊◊.
The Thirteenth Omnibus
Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard was first published in 1953 as Maigret et l’homme du banc, and was translated into English by Eileen Ellenbogen. It all started with a pair of tan shoes, in rather flashy taste for the conservatively dressed man who had been found in a cul de sac with a knife in his back. Maigret goes to work in his usual fashion, trying to understand the man who has died, and just why he would have such a pair of shoes. A trip to the man’s home in the anonymous suburbs and a meeting with his grimly respectable wife give him a clue. Then he finds the man had been living a mysterious existence, with no visible means of support. Maigret investigates the lives of some former employees of a wholesaler forced into liquidation by redevelopment on its grounds, where the murdered man used to work. The more he finds out the more attractive Monsieur Louis, the murdered man, appears. This is a very good detective story, Simenon style, with equal emphasis on mystery and suspense and on character and milieu. Unfortunately about two thirds of the way through the story veers into improbability, as Monsieur Louis is suddenly found to be a master criminal, with rather dubious associates. The detail of his last crime, in a bit of careless plotting, is not disclosed, and he is said to have a large sum of money, which has led to his murder, but not how. The motive for the crime, and the murderer, are introduced in virtually the last few pages, and neither are convincing at all. It looks as though Simenon was interested in delineating Monsieur Louis and his friends, but had only a cursory interest in the crime and its solution. Nevertheless very entertaining.
The Others was first published as Les Autres in 1962, and was translated into English by Alaistair Hamilton. Blaise Huet has written a novel about his extended family, and life in a provincial capital city in France: it was rejected by publishers as “too confessional”. Now his Uncle Antoine has died, and as the family gather to console one another (or not), and to wonder about the provisions of his will, Blaise tells their story, and his own, all over again. This is one of Simenon’s rare first person narratives. I don’t think it works, because Simenon is limited by the perceptions of one character, no matter how self aware, and so prevented from exploring from within the psyches of those he examines. The various family members and their relationships takes up an inordinate amount of time to sort out, and I was never really sure whom was who. And, after all, nothing really happens. Antoine dies, the family are introduced, their background sketched in, their reaction to one another, the will is read, the story ends. Rather a minimalist book, with none of the richness of description of milieu that Paris seems to evoke in Simenon.
Maigret and the Loner was first published as Maigret et l’homme tout seul in 1971, and translated into English by Eileen Ellenbogen. A down and outer has been found murdered in an abandoned building. Why would anyone want to murder a vagrant? Yet the man had been tracked down and shot in cold blood. Slowly, almost ploddingly, Maigret identifies the man and reconstructs his past and his associates. Along the way he uncovers a love affair of 20 years ago, and the smouldering resentments that have lasted to the present. Here is a story that combines character study, police procedural and Maigret’s intuition in a story that is never less than entertaining. As often, I was a little let down by the ‘solution’, which seemed a little bit pat (there are no solutions in real life) yet that very disappointment is a sign of how solid Simenon’s characterisation is. The book is peopled by a host of tramps, small shopkeepers, apartment dwellers and police officials, all on stage for just a paragraph or two, all vividly realised, with enough background sketched in to make a dozen novels by most other writers, here merely local colour for a detective story.
The Thirteenth Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1978. Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard, 1953, rated ◊◊◊◊◊; The Others, 1962, rated ◊◊◊; Maigret and the Loner, 1971, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊.
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