Translated by Roz Schwartz — This anthology of five Maigret stories, three of which appear for the first time in English, completes the Penguin Classics Maigret collection. It’s a project that began on 7 November 2013, and each month since then – more or less – Penguin has published a Maigret book, covering all 75 novels and now the short stories. All the endearing traits we have come to expect from the creator of the famous French detective are here. Savour Simenon’s witty, lean prose, keen eye for a nutty little mystery and perceptive observations on the hearts and minds of flics and criminals alike.
Two of the stories occur during Maigret’s retirement, but naturally he can’t escape the allure of the hunt when invited to observe an investigation. Two are set years earlier and occur in and around Paris, while the last happens near Lyon when Maigret is head of the flying squad. So we see Maigret as reluctant private citizen investigator but also as dogged policeman come hunter. When the meaning of a crime is opaque Maigret, an unsurpassed a reader of people and situations, is your man. Each tale is a beautifully contained mystery.
While enjoying his retirement, Maigret stumbles into the case of The Improbable Mr Owens while visiting his old friend and Paris informer Louis, now manager/doorman – the later pays better – of a grand hotel in Deauville. Madame de Maigret is off caring for her sick aunt in Quimper so he is alone enjoying the delights of the Mediterranean sun and the company of film stars and prime ministers.
Louis breaks the spell by disturbing Maigret’s afternoon nap with a tale of murder. Of course, the local police are on it, but Louis is convinced that only Maigret will be able to solve a perplexing crime. The former detective is coy, resisting Louis’ entreaties but the details of the case are intriguing. Only yesterday Monsieur Owens appeared healthy, though oddly he never removed his grey gloves, and he had a nurse with him. While the nurse is out for the day a young man is found dead in Owens’ bathtub and Owens has disappeared. Only Maigret sees the telling little details that will allow him to solve the crime.
Back at home in the village of Meung-sur-Loire, it’s winter and Maigret is bored. Madame de Maigret doesn’t want him under her feet all day and suggests he plays cards with The Men at the Grand Café. It becomes a regular thing and it’s not long before Maigret has his little circle of friends – the vet, the butcher, the farrier, the mechanic, the owner, his wife, the waitress and, of course, the detective. Then one night the butcher is murdered and suspicion falls on the group. Maigret, doesn’t like gossip and to the surprise of the local detective, inspector Gabrielli, he doesn’t want to get involved. But how much has Maigret gleaned from his time with them? Is it enough to piece together what happened?
Many years before, the tenacity of the Paris detective sees him crack a criminal’s nerve in The Man on the Street. When a pickpocket confesses to murder Maigret organises a reconstruction of the street robbery gone wrong, supposedly a man was shot to death for his wallet. Wily Maigret knows there’s more to it, so while others think the case closed he has a plan for getting to the truth.
Clearly a re-enactment stimulates Maigret’s grey matter in the The Candle Auction too. Here, he is head of the Lyon flying squad and a man is murdered at an inn in Port-au-Grau. The assembled suspects run through the events of the night it happened. The man due to attend a land auction had a lot of money on him, but is this a simple crime of greed. The owner of the inn used to be known as Fred the Boxer. Maigret had cause to arrest both him and his wife in the past but they aren’t the only ones with secrets.
Finally, Death Threats. Maigret once again is reluctantly drawn into an investigation although this time it’s his duty. Monsieur Émile Grosbois, wealthy scrap merchant, has pulled strings and so the chief is sending Maigret to investigate a death threat. Grosbois will be dead by Sunday the note says. Grosbois thinks the threat must be from an outsider but accompanying him back to the family chateau Maigret is not so sure. A finer collection of self interested, ambitious and greedy narcissists, you’d struggle to find in one place.
This quintet of stories are a treat. The modern translations by Roz Schwartz may help but they don’t seem to have aged at all. Simenon’s clever psychological mysteries are elegantly plotted cat and mouse games, dotted with humour and genuine insight. The two retirement stories with the coy detective demanding to be coaxed when we know he wants to get stuck in are particularly fun. Consummate crime writing.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars