Three Simenon Omnibuses

The Fourteenth Simenon Omnibus
Maigret and the Spinster was first published in 1942 as Cécile est morte, and was translated into English by Eileen Ellenbogen. This is a similar plot to the later Maigret and the Madwoman of 1970. In both books a woman is disregarded when she reports her flat has been entered and searched, and when she is later murdered Maigret is mortified, and determined to catch the culprit. This book contains a chilling portrait of a miser, another victim. Simenon is at his best when portraying the corrupting effect of greed on people in all walks of life. Other portraits are not as successful. One villain is a procurer, and customer, of child prostitutes, depicted with mingled disgust and an odd amusement. As often, it appears, in Maigret stories, the depiction of character and milieu is masterly, and makes the first two thirds of the book highly enjoyable to read. As often in detective stories the solution is made by means of incongruous character development, and the final third of this book is somewhat contrived, and most unlikely. The solution involves the titular Cécile, a figure of fun while described by others, turning into a violent killer, an incongruous change which does though help Maigret solve a murder. A redundant section has Maigret being studied while on the case by an American policeman so as to learn his methods. They consist in this instance in eating and drinking an inordinate amount of food and alcohol. Maigret confesses he imagines what it is like to be each suspect in a case. In other words he proceeds as Simenon does in writing his books. So many Maigret stories, like so many Sherlock Holmes ones, could be so much better.

Betty was first published as Betty in 1961, and was translated into English by Alaistair Hamilton. There’s a big gap in Betty between what it is about and the way Simenon treats the situation described. The book is an attempt to understand the mind of a woman dissatisfied with her life, someone who has been so harmed in growing up that her self esteem has been destroyed, so that, though she seemingly has everything she wants, she feels she doesn’t deserve it and attempts to destroy her own happiness and situation as a wife and mother. The character Betty is explored with all of Simenon’s acuity and he seems to understand the particular problems that can face a woman very well. But so far this is all case notes. Simenon doesn’t really have a story, a drama to describe. The book soon becomes tedious and seems to meander. The descent through drink and sexual promiscuity is predictable but not vividly told as Simenon can do on occasion. Although explorations of Betty’s state of mind is empathetic, the solution is almost the opposite as she is found to survive only by belonging to a man, a man whom she has taken from a woman whom unaccountably befriends her and looks after her and who too is so dependent on a man that when she loses her lover she has nothing to live for and dies. This book I think should have remained in Simenon’s notebooks.

Maigret and the Black Sheep was first published as Maigret et les braves gens in 1962, and translated into English by Helen Thomson. René Josselin is that rare thing, a good man without an enemy in the world. But someone has shot him in his own living room without leaving a trace. A baffling case for Maigret to solve, and we follow him around Paris as he investigates the murdered man’s background and associates, including family members who may be hiding something. This is a neat and competent little detective story where we can enjoy the great man as he goes through his unique process of soaking up the atmosphere and imagining the personalities of the suspects in the case. As so often in the Maigret books, the investigation is everything, the solution rather perfunctory, here made by introducing a guilty character right at the end of the book and making him responsible for the crime, with no exploration at all of his character, as he never appears in the book as a person, only as a reported character. Nevertheless, highly entertaining.

The Fourteenth Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1979:  Maigret and the Spinster, 1942, rated ◊◊◊◊◊; Betty, 1961, rated ◊◊◊; Maigret and the Black Sheep, 1962, rated ◊◊◊◊◊.

Maigret and the Ghost and Other Stories
Maigret and the Hotel Majestic was first published in 1942 as Maigret et les caves du Majestic, and was translated into English by Caroline Hillier. This is a relatively early Maigret story which combines with great skill a depiction of a group of working class people associated in one way or the other with a grand hotel, and an expertly plotted and intriguing detective story involving swindling, forgery and murder. The world of Prosper Donge, a cook at the Hotel Majestic, has been transformed when the woman he loved married a rich American. Now she has returned to Paris and is about to disrupt his life all over again. Prosper, his wife Charlotte, their friends and colleagues, are all drawn, briefly yet vividly, as only Simenon can. And he feels for these disadvantaged people a lively sympathy, not blind to their faults yet well aware of their virtues. Maigret is unusually vindictive when he finds the criminal who has framed an innocent man. The vividness of the character portrayal make the unravelling of the murder mystery seem important, and the solution remains a puzzle until the very end.

Three Beds in Manhattan was first published as Trois chambres à Manhattan in 1946, and was translated into English by Lawrence G Blochman. The story of François Combe, a moderately successful actor of stage and screen whose wife leaves him for a younger man. François flees to America, where he lives a lonely existence full of resentment. Then he meets Catherine, divorced by her diplomat husband and kept away from her daughter, who leads an equally lonely existence of sterile one night stands. The two embark of a mistrustful, sometimes aggressive love affair, and end up living happily ever after. This is a sentimental love story, and despite Simenon’s attempt to include discordant elements of personality, remains pretty much unvaried in tone throughout the book. That two people who have been hurt before should mistrust each other is hardly a revelation to make. Other than that Simenon portrays two self obsessed and egotistical people negotiating for what they want and are still afraid to get. Limited by it’s lack of real exploration of personality, and the fall back on easy sentimentality, this is close to a Mills and Boon from Simenon, and a lesser work, though one of his most popular. Apparently based on Simenon’s affair with Denise Ouimet, who became his second wife, the story is far too autobiographical to represent Simenon’s gifts as a novelist, which expressed something quite deep in his subconsciousness.

Maigret and the Ghost was first published as Maigret et le fantôme in 1964, and translated into English by Eileen Ellenbogen. The lugubrious Inspector Lognon makes another appearance in this late story, as a victim shot and seriously injured by persons unknown. The plot involves (or perhaps may involve) art swindles, as a talented forger appears to be successfully selling work under more famous names. As usual, Simenon is more interested in the people that Maigret interviews than in the how and who of any actual crime. This is an incredibly badly constructed story by Simenon, and the ‘solution’ of the crime, hastily introducing a large number of undeveloped characters, is almost incomprehensible. I’m still not sure Simenon solved the attempted murder or not, as there seems to be suddenly too many people doing mysterious things which are not fully explained, all in the last chapter. Simenon does this at times: he is primarily interested in the case study, not the plot (though he can be superb in constructing a plot).

Maigret and the Ghost, Penguin Books, 1982:  Maigret and the Hotel Majestic, 1942, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊; Three Beds in Manhattan, 1946, rated ◊◊◊; Maigret and the Ghost, 1964, rated ◊◊◊.

Maigret Meets a Milord and Other Stories
Maigret Meets a Milord was first published in 1931 as Le Charretier de la ‘Providence‘, and was translated into English by Robert Baldick. One of 11 books Simenon published in 1931 when he launched his career as Simenon, this was the third of the Maigret stories, and otherwise known as The Crime at Lock 14. Very big on atmosphere, the story depicts the way of life, and the very texture, the light, the sounds and smells, of the life of barges and bargemen travelling by canal through the river system of France, in this case the Marne. Simenon had spent a lot of time travelling by barge around France, so he knew what he was talking about, and the details of the setting sound very authentic, and help bring the story to life. What holds it back is simply that the vivid characterisation is linked with a lurid, highly melodramatic plot more suited to the pulp fiction Simenon had so recently been writing so prolifically. An eccentric British peer, the milord of the title, his companions a Russian exile, a countess, and his wife, who is murdered, who turns out to be an ex dance hall hostess, meet up with a doctor who has left his respectable life, spent time in a prison camp, and is now an inarticulate hulk of a man nursing all kinds of sinister thoughts and impulses. The murderer, a strangler, dies at the end, and is depicted with unusual sympathy. The elements of the Maigret stories were all in evidence right from the very beginning.

Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets was first published as Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien in 1931 , and was translated into English by Tony White. This is the second Maigret, and one of the best. It begins when Maigret commits a murder by following a man travelling from Holland to Germany and stealing his suitcase, switching it with another one he has containing old newspapers. Just why he has this suitcase and swaps it with the other is not very clear. When he follows the man to a seedy hotel room, from an adjoining room he sees the man shoot himself in the mouth, and feels responsible for his death. Has he committed  a murder or prevented a crime of another sort? Aside from the unlikely opening situation the story now proceeds with unrelenting logic to show that a moment of drunken foolishness has trapped a group of young men in a more and more complicated net of lies, deception and subterfuge, until now, middle aged and more or less successful, with families and business responsibilities, the mere presence of Maigret fills them with terror. This study of the corroding effect of guilt on an otherwise ordinary group of men is very well done, and the detective story format ideal for slowly revealing the ramifications of events. Maigret walks away at the end feeling the justice he stands for is far, far less effective than that handed out by god. “There’s a big fellow up there called god who’s got it into his head to do our job for us…”

Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett was first published as Pietr-le-Letton in 1931, and translated into English by Daphne Woodward. It was the fifth Maigret, and shows the detective as much more active than he eventually became, a mere intuitive device sniffing up atmosphere and delving into motives until the criminal confesses. Here he carries a gun, is shot and seriously wounded, and travels around Europe on the track of an international cartel of unscrupulous bootleggers. If you can imagine Agatha Christie getting together with Eric Ambler and Raymond Chandler, this is the kind of book they might create. It is one of the best of the Maigret stories, and if I knew more about the subject I’d be inclined to say one of the best detective stories ever written. The story itself, like most mystery stories, can’t stand too close a logical scrutiny, and involves a pair of identical twins who impersonate each other, one of whom somewhat arbitrarily murders the other, a prominent American tycoon who is really a multi-millionaire bootlegger, and much satire of grand hotels, something Simenon appears to enjoy. Maigret’s close colleague Sergeant Torrence is murdered, by an ingenious method which seems unnecessarily complicated as everyone else is merely shot, and is actually pointless and unnecessary (the poor man was quietly eating a meal). Simenon combines lurid elements from pulp fiction with a perceptive examination of how political unrest after WWI in those countries trapped between Russia and Poland such as Latvia, where political and cultural unity did not coincide, became a breeding ground for opportunistic individuals not bothered by too many scruples to exploit the situation for their own ends. At the time he was writing this book a certain Adolf Hitler was pursuing this career in Germany. As always, behind the violence depicted there is just compassion that individuals can be driven so far by their inner demons.

Maigret Meets a Milord, Penguin Books, 1983:  Maigret Meets a Milord, 1931, rated ◊◊◊◊; Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, 1931, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊; Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett, 1931, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊.

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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