Georges Simenon and Inspector Maigret

cellars of the majesticWhen I was first growing serious about learning French, I was advised repeatedly to read Simenon’s Maigret stories. The French was so simple! I was assured, and they were good stories, too. I have no idea why I resisted, sheer perversity, I expect. When I was teaching French, I was often asked if Simenon was one of the 20th century authors I taught – being, I think, one of the few French authors with whom most people were familiar. I did not teach Simenon. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I finally read a Simenon novel for the first time. And now it’s taken me an absolute age to get around to reviewing it, though not because it wasn’t an enjoyable experience to read. In fact, I whipped through it in no time, loved it, and wondered why it had taken me so long.

Inevitably, having finally read Simenon, I became curious to know something about the man. What a life! He published almost 500 novels and hundreds of stories, using many pseudonyms. Born in Belgium, he moved to Paris as a young man where he worked as a journalist, always with a taste for frequenting the seamier side of the city. His love life was particularly energetic. He married and then began a decades long affair with his housekeeper. The second world war intervened and Simenon got himself into hot water over collaboration. I imagine he behaved much like Colette did – with a sort of hard-headed peasant pragmatism. Colette wanted very much to eat, which meant she had to sell her work, and so her basic view was that she would sell it to whoever was buying. Simenon would eventually be sentenced to a five year prohibition on publishing, but it wasn’t observed. Not least because, once the war was over, Simenon took his family to America for a decade. His wife had found out about his affair by now and the marriage was struggling. Simenon promptly began a new affair with the woman he hired as his secretary and they married and had three children during a stormy relationship. In 1955 they all returned to France, and ten years later, Simenon divorced and married again – yet another of his housekeepers. He claimed by the end of his life to have had 10,000 lovers, and that he wrote 60 to 80 pages a day. Judging by his output, the writing claim is probably true.

Inspector Maigret was his greatest creation, his first novel featuring him published in 1931. He would go on to write 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. The thing about these novels is that they are very short – 120 pages or so – but they manage to have the same depth as a book of much greater length. I’ve thought for a while that the tendency in publishing lately is to allow books an extra 100 pages more than they need, and there isn’t a better case for concision than Maigret.

In The Cellars of the Majestic, Maigret is called to the discovery of one of the hotel’s guests, strangled and unceremoniously dumped in a locker in the staff changing rooms. The victim is the French wife of a rich American businessman, and certain pressures are brought to bear on Maigret to go easy on the guests. Maigret has no intention of doing any such thing, but once he finds that the husband’s affair with the governess to his children gives him an alibi, Maigret is happy to leave the bourgeois to their own devices. He is, in any case, far more intrigued by the complex workings of the servant underworld in the hotel, and in the sad circumstances of the main suspect for the murder, the hotel’s coffee-maker, Prosper Donge. Prosper is a sad soul, an ugly red-head who lives in a platonic sort of relationship with Charlotte, a lavatory attendant at a nightclub. It turns out that they both knew the murdered woman when they were all working in the South of France. From there, Maigret is hot on the lead of a complicated story of prostitution, blackmail and unrequited love.

It’s hard to put one’s finger on what makes this book tick along so satisfyingly. There’s a wonderful evocation of place and landscape, vivid yet brief; the characters are drawn so sympathetically – at least they are sympathetic in Maigret’s understanding gaze – and the puzzle is convoluted in its unravelling but simple in its solution. The narrative chugs along swiftly, free from padding and all those scenes in contemporary crime novels in which no one learns anything of any note. In a book this size, every scene counts, every encounter progresses the story. And Maigret is a great understated, unshowy performer. Getting older, getting tireder, saddened sometimes by what he has to witness of human lives, but his sharp eye and rapid insight are never in doubt. Yes, perhaps that’s what ultimately makes these stories so comforting – you are never in doubt that Maigret is in control of the investigation and that he will succeed. Much like Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason and Jack Reacher – the foundation stone of the story is Maigret’s unshakeable competence.

Without doubt, I’ll be catching up on more of Maigret’s cases, thanks to the lovely new Penguin reissues. A steadfast hero in a short, vivid, well-plotted story; no wonder they remain classics.

Recent Reading: The Goldfinch, Frances & Bernard, Cop Town

the goldfinchI have stalled in my reading of The Goldfinch at an embarrassingly early part of the book, well, if we are counting in inches, that is. Maybe it’s the fault of the strange combination of part-listening to the audio book, part-reading the wrist-breaking real thing that has left me floating still on top of the story, rather than stitched down into it. But essentially it’s because the next couple of hundred pages appear to be a teenage drink-and-drugs odyssey and I can’t think of anything I’d rather read less. I was going to suggest maybe two hundred pages of unpleasant hospital treatment, but then that would be a book I would never pick up in the first place.

Most books, when you hit a dull patch, you can think to yourself, oh well, thirty pages tops and then we’ll be past it. Not this one. And whilst Donna Tartt’s writing is fine (somehow I remember The Secret History as much better written, but that could just be the work of unreliable memory), she’s only going to tell me what happens, in minute detail. If I thought it was the kind of writing that would be rich in psychological insights and what events mean, I might be more interested. But The Goldfinch so far has been a novel of painstaking description, with a faint fairy-tale quality to the story and its characterisation. I never had the least interest in drink and drugs as a teenager, and I have even less now. I don’t enjoy skim-reading and I’m not sure I have the stamina to plough through what lies ahead. I don’t want to give up, and yet I don’t have much interest in continuing.

frances and bernardOn a happier note, Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer was pure delight. An epistolary novel set in the 1950s, we follow the correspondance between novelist Frances Reardon and poet Bernard Eliot, who have recently met at a writing commune. Bernard has now gone to Florence to finish his book, whilst Frances has returned home to Philadelphia to write hers. Shortly they will both end up in New York. Bernard is attracted to Frances because of her devout religious views and her upright, stern moral demeanour. Bernard is a Catholic in love with ecstasy in all its forms and he is drawn to Frances’ gravitas, as an anchor, perhaps, to his volatile and fierce emotions. They are unlikely friends and even less likely lovers, not least because Frances is determined to remain single and avoid the complications of domesticity that might ruin her work.

But Bernard is a big heart and an outgoing spirit; he loves easily, deeply, magnetically. The downside of this is an inevitable mental fragility, and before long his letters will grow wilder and a spell in an institution is inevitable. Frances values their friendship by now and assures him that she is not afraid of him (Frances would not want to be afraid of anything), and almost against her will she is drawn closer to his vulnerability.

The writing in this novel was just exquisite. It’s a brilliant character portrait of two very different writers and of an unexpected and awkward relationship that nevertheless has moments of sublime grace. Given that she has two writers engaged in a battle of wits and wills, Bauer can just have fun with their voices, which she most certainly does. Apparently, the couple is loosely based on Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. I would not have guessed this myself and I don’t think it matters much one way or another to know about the biographical background. There is a great deal of chat about religion, though, which might strike secular readers as unusual. But it echoes and questions the way art can become a religion – this in a very subtle way – how passion is necessary in one form or another though we might make very different uses of it. I think it’s fair to say I enjoyed every sentence of this one.

cop townAnother book I enjoyed, from the opposite end of the reading spectrum, was Karin Slaughter’s latest novel, Cop Town. Set in the 70s in Atlanta it’s essentially the story of new recruit to the force, Kate Murphy and the woman who gives her a helping hand on her traumatic first day, Maggie Lawson. Maggie has grown up in a police family and, against just about everyone’s wishes, joined the force alongside her brother, much beloved ex-football star, Jimmy, and her brutal, misogynist Uncle Terry. Terry represents everything the white male police force is about; he despises women, he despises foreigners, and he has no respect for the law when it’s in his own hands. When the book begins Jimmy’s partner, Don, has been the latest victim of a cop killer wreaking havoc in the city. The force is on red alert, determined to mete out its own justice to the killer when they find him. With a black mayor and a black head of police, times are changing, and the old boys have no faith in the authorities, which is rich given that Uncle Terry’s planted evidence on their last conviction caused the case to fall through.

Into this ugly regime stumbles Kate, a widow whose husband recently died in Vietnam. She is well-spoken, attractive, and Jewish; she’s also lived a gentle life up until now. Oh boy, is she in for a nasty shock. What Karin Slaughter does so brilliantly in this novel, as well as in the best literary fiction, is recreate the conditions of the 70s that we all have convenient amnesia about. It’s a man’s world, in which women need to shut up and stop asking stupid questions, and anyone who isn’t white and American needs to remember their place. Her description of the bad side of town is particularly hard-hitting too. Whilst a lot of novels depict places you might actually want to visit, Cop Town makes a reader feel very relieved to be safely in the new millenium. An excellent novel about how we used to be, but a violent and graphic one, be warned.

More Cosy Crime

a death in the dalesIt just so happens that I’ve had two blog tours come along, one after the other. Today’s is for the latest (seventh) Kate Shackleton crime novel by Frances Brody, A Death in the Dales. Last year I reviewed Death of an Avid Reader, which I loved, and I very much enjoyed this one, too.

Kate Shackleton is, I suppose, somewhat like Maisie Dobbs, in that she is a post-World War One private investigator, one of the superfluous women whose husband died in the fighting and who needs to make her own way in the world. Kate was a VAD during the War, and so whilst she is undoubtedly a lady, she has a certain plausible toughness about her. She is ably assisted by her housekeeper, Mrs Sugden, and a former police officer, Jim Sykes, who goes to the places (like pubs, and servants’ quarters) that she cannot.

By this seventh outing, Kate has an admirer – Lucian Simonson, a doctor – and she has also discovered a family. Kate was adopted as a baby and has only recently found her natural relatives, who come from a lower social class than the one she was raised to inhabit. When her niece needs to convalesce after succumbing to a dangerous bout of diphtheria, Kate decides to take her out of Leeds and into the country. Lucian’s aunt has recently died and her house is standing empty; it’s the perfect opportunity for a holiday in the Yorkshire countryside, but it’s also clear from Lucian’s manner that it’s a trial run for Kate in a house that could easily be her own. Kate has come to value her independence, and she isn’t keen to be rushed. But at the same time, she is as aware as the next woman in 1926 that marriage offers a more conventional lifestyle than her rackety profession.

However, it seems Kate’s reputation has preceeded her. Lucian’s Aunt Flora has left a box of cuttings and notes for Kate concerning a murder that she witnessed from her bedroom window ten years ago. She saw the landlord of the local pub as he was knifed, but in a strange scuffle, the person who commited the murder was not the person tried and hanged for the crime. At the time, the word of one elderly lady was insufficient evidence against the fact that the drunk in the gutter was discovered with the weapon in his hand. Flora was convinced a third person had been involved, who had quickly run away, but with no idea who this person might be, and much hostility in the village against her defence of the accused, justice proceeded to her chagrin. Flora knew of her nephew’s involvement with a private detective and hoped to meet her one day – leaving her posthumous legacy for Kate when Lucian failed to introduce them in time.

Kate’s hardly been in the village five minutes before other inhabitants are seeking her help. Her own niece, Harriet, befriends a girl whose brother has gone missing, and the local gentry call Kate in on a delicate matter of missing love letters. You’ll not be surprised to know that all three mysteries are bound together in unguessable ways.

This is a reliably strong series with a plausible heroine and clever, deftly interwoven plots. There’s just enough history supporting the stories – in this novel the General Strike of 1926 is the main talking point, with Kate unable to access enough petrol for her car – to be realistic without overloading the reader. I found this highly readable, and satisfyingly written.


superfluous womenI realise this is Frances Brody’s blog tour but I hope she won’t mind if I mention another cosy crime novel I’ve been sent – Superfluous Women by Carola Dunn. While we’re doing the cosy thing here, we might as well put them all together, because if you like one, you’ll probably like the others. This is the 21st Daisy Dalrymple novel, and they are remarkably soothing comfort fare. I’ve read lots of them, and followed Daisy’s progress post-WW1 and the loss of her fiancé to her marriage (hopelessly shocking to her aristocratic mother) to a DCA from Scotland Yard. Daisy is a much more unofficial crime-solver than Kate Shackleton, and so this murder concerns the discovery of a body in the cellar of a house her friends have recently moved into. Three superfluous women, they have come together to share their living costs and pool their resources, and Daisy, visiting only while recuperating herself from bronchitis, just has the knack of being on the spot when crime takes place. I do feel that if you like Carola Dunn, you’ll like Frances Brody, and vice versa. It’s autumn, the nights are drawing in, the days are growing cold, and cosy crime is a wonderful antidote, I find, to the general blahs of the season.

Crime Fiction Giveaway

Just a quick post for this giveaway as the full review will appear in Shiny on 8th October when our autumn edition goes live. But the lovely people at Constable offered me a free copy for any of my readers, anywhere, and a comment will put you in the draw.

murder on seaEarlier this year I read the first in the Whitstable Pearl series by Julie Wassmer and enjoyed it. Wassmer used to write scripts for Eastenders, so she was always going to be a safe pair of hands. This second novel was, unsurprisingly, better than the first as is so often the case with crime fiction series, as the characters become more clearly defined and grow from book to book.

I started reading this one morning last week, and although I had all sorts of things I ought to have been doing, I finished it later that same day. It’s cosy crime set in the seaside community of Whitstable and our sleuth is restauranteur and private eye, Pearl Nolan. A spate of poison pen messages in Christmas cards causes much upset among Pearl’s friends and acquaintances, and is swiftly followed by a suspicious death at the church hall fundraiser. Pearl’s love interest, DCI Mike McGuire happens to be at the fundraiser thanks to Pearl and so he, too, finds himself excluded from the police investigation. Together, they set out to find the culprit.

This is just a really good, engaging story, lots of suspects and colourful characters, strong plotting, satisfying ending. Cosy crime isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s my comfort reading go-to. If it’s yours, put yourself in the draw, which I’ll close next Friday, 2nd October.