Light on a crime

Postcard of former lighthouse, Delfzijl, Holland: built 1888, set on fire May 1940 by Dutch troops, rebuilt 1949, then demolished (1981) for a harbour extension

Georges Simenon: Maigret in Holland
Un Crime en Hollande (1931) translated (1940) by Geoffrey Sainsbury
Harvest / Harcourt Brace 1994

A tale that features the beam from a lighthouse, a young woman who eventually marries a lightbulb salesman and Jules Maigret, a police inspector who is expected to throw light on crimes, is — paradoxically — full of shadows and dark corners. Knowing a little about the Chief Inspector’s reputation we can expect him to deliver the goods in his steady methodical way, but the investigation will be hampered, first by his not being able to speak Dutch, and secondly by a small cast of characters who as expected have their own secrets to hide from him and from the close community they all live in.

Maigret travels to the northern end of Holland to assist a French criminology lecturer, Professor Jean Duclos, who has been caught up with the murder of a teacher in the Dutch port of Delfzijl. Duclos was found in possession of the revolver that killed Conrad Popinga, but there soon emerges a houseful of suspects and bystanders who could have had a motive for murder. And one common denominator among these motives turns out to be unrequited love.

Thankfully the local police inspector, Pijpekamp, speaks French, as do a handful of others who are involved, and while his modus operandi — slow, silent and never jumping to conclusions — irritates some, Maigret goes about collecting his evidence systematically (almost like a French juge d’instruction or examing magistrate). Then, as if in a classic British cosy, he stages a reconstruction of the crime with participating witnesses, allowing him to reach his conclusions, before finally leaving the matter in the hands of the Dutch inspector.

Despite his cold, taciturn exterior Maigret is not merely forensic in his approach: he is interested in human psychology and, in particular, individual motivation. This, along with him being an outsider, enables him to see what others do not. Simenon is like a reporter standing behind the inspector, observing his actions and his decisions but not daring to interpret them until the case is resolved.

This is apparently a key novel in the Maigret canon. We’re told that in the late 1920s Simenon began to travel by boat around the French canals, moving on to Belgium (he was born in the Belgian town of Liège) and the Netherlands. Supposedly it was in Delfzijl, in September 1929, that he came up with the character of Jules Maigret, this epiphany eventually resulting in the corpus of seventy-odd novels featuring the Chief Inspector. Un Crime en Hollande was in the first batch of Maigret titles published two years later, in 1931.

Delfzijl is now a major town with a population of around 25,000, but in this novel set around ninety years ago it comes across as a sleepy provincial enclave. Sparsely peopled in this novel, the very nondescript nature of the port allows Maigret the leisure to stroll around, witness goings-on, make enquiries and eventually solve the crime before returning to his Paris haunts. His observational powers of searchlight propensities make him realise early on that it is the travelling beam of the local vuurtoren or lighthouse that is key to alighting on the likely supect, but not in the most obvious of processes.

Short enough to be a novella, Maigret in Holland for us moderns exudes an old-fashioned charm as it depicts a world long gone, one in which the pace of life was much less hectic than now. It’s also very easy to imagine Simenon himself, laid up in a coastal town while his boat is being overhauled, taking the opportunity to quietly and unostentatiously make mental notes on what he sees and hears, saving those memories for the policier that’s gestating in his imagination.

Greetings from Delfzijl: vuurtoren (lighthouse, literally ‘fire-tower’)

In the Ultimate Reading Challenge this counts as a book translated from another language

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11 thoughts on “Light on a crime

    1. It probably is, Ola, and one of its virtues is that it’s short! I used to have the scripts of two radio dramatisations of Maigret novels in French (for schools broadcasts in the 60s or 70s I think) but seem to have mislaid them, so this was the next best thing.

    1. I certainly enjoyed it, and you may too! Though some of the actors in the drama are a bit cardboard, I liked the fact that women were given very different roles to play; though it could be argued they’re a bit stereotypical (the vacuous good-time girl, the faithful wife, the unfeminine independent woman) it could be argued that the men are equally so.

  1. I’ve recently discovered Simenon — via my local Little Free Library — and am enjoying his tales of Maigret. I’ll keep an eye out for this one.

    I also came by a set of DVDs with Michael Gambon as Simenon’s detective. Not bad, and Maigret’s interest in motivation comes through in each episode.

    1. There have been a lot of British TV Maigret productions with different actors, and apparently Rupert Davies from the 1960s was Simenon’s personal favourite out of all the European versions.

      I never saw Michael Gambon’s take but we have been enjoying Rowan Atkinson as the Chief Inspector in the most recent interpretation. Yes, that Rowan Atkinson, best known as Blackadder and Mr Bean. He makes an unexpectedly convincing Maigret.

  2. Pingback: Winding Up the Week #19 – Book Jotter

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