Written by Georges Simenon, translated by David Coward — Having accrued an incomplete collection of dog-eared, yellowed and slightly foxed editions of Simenon’s Maigret novels by scavenging second hand bookshops, Penguin’s project to reprint all 75 of them was music to my ears. This set is being translated afresh by the likes of David Bellos, Anthea Bell and David Coward, and each has striking cover photography by Harry Gruyaert. Collectors have the opportunity to complete their Simenon libraries, while new readers will be introduced to our favourite laconic detective for the first time. A Man’s Head, originally published in 1931, is the ninth book in the series.
It opens with Maigret’s involvement in the staged prison break of a young drifter called Joseph Huertin. He’s awaiting execution for the murder of two women – a rich American and her maid – and it was Maigret himself who apprehended the man. Now the detective doubts the veracity of Huertin’s conviction. The evidence doesn’t add up, Huertin doesn’t seem clever enough, and Maigret needs that moral certainty. A man’s life hangs in the balance and Maigret takes full responsibility for liberating Huertin. He is convinced that the crimes were committed by someone else, and that after being released Huertin’s behaviour will point them to the real killer.
What follows is the nerve-shredding tracking of Huertin as he seeks to evade capture, the introduction of the rich murder victim’s rather dubious heir, and an unorthodox investigation during which Maigret homes in on the real killer through the streets of Paris. This is a killer with the intellectual capacity to confound and test Maigret to the limit.
A Man’s Head has an interesting blend of the familiar and the not so familiar. Maigret displays all his usual characteristics such as his curmudgeonly demeanour, brusque tone and his inclination to cut people off cold in conversation when he loses interest. Indeed, the bluntness with which people are assessed and dismissed always brings a slight smirk to my face.
However this book is also interesting because of how Maigret acts slightly against type, operating on the shadier side of what is legal by allowing a convicted criminal to escape. He defies his superiors, and doesn’t always adhere to the law and police procedures. Obviously, this is now a familiar trope in the contemporary crime genre – the rebellious detective operating on the wild side – but it’s an unusual course for Maigret himself to take. Reassuringly though, Maigret insists that Huertin will prove himself by his actions, and puts the emphasis back on the suspected criminal to prove their guilt or innocence. The moral complexity that Simenon injects into this book is intriguing, as is the way he displays Maigret’s normally steadfast and fixed character in new ways.
As the introduction states, Simenon was always resistant to identifying himself with his famous creation but acknowledged an important shared characteristic: “My motto, to the extent that I have one, has been noted often enough, and I’ve always conformed to it. It’s the one I’ve given to old Maigret, who resembles me in certain points… ‘Understand and judge not.'”A Man’s Head more than lives up to this authorial motivation, and certainly has established itself as one of my favourite titles in this exceptional crime series.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars