My Friend Maigret by Georges Simenon.
Translated by Nigel Ryan (1956).
Penguin Red Classic 2006 (1949)
The bells were still sending their circles of sound into the air.Chapter 8
A petty crook has been shouting his mouth off about mon ami Maigret in a popular hotel bar on one of the Îles d’Or off the southern French coast. The next day he is dead, shot first and his body mashed. Chief Inspector Maigret, shadowed by a colleague from Scotland Yard, is despatched to Porquerolles to investigate, leaving a drizzly late spring Paris for a balmy Mediterranean island.
Feeling his investigative style cramped by the English detective observing his famous methods Maigret finds himself additionally seduced by the sounds, smells and sights that assail his senses. Can he make progress in solving the mystery of who on the island would want Marcellin dead, and why?
As is familiar from many Maigret stories Simenon gets the reader to figuratively sit on the detective’s shoulder, sharing his thoughts and overhearing his quickfire questioning; the reader also has time to get caught up in descriptions of locale and prevailing atmospheres before Maigret’s final suspect or suspects are fingered.
Maigret finds his fame has preceded him to the island when, on arriving, he observes the curiosity of locals that naturally attends the presence of a celebrity. Expectations by the local police inspector Lechat and Yard inspector Pyke, and by the islanders, that he will begin his investigations straightaway of course run counter to his usual modus operandi of quietly observing, keeping a low profile, and dropping the odd seemingly irrelevant question. Porquerolles, as well as the usual complement of fishermen and day trippers, numbers a fair sprinkling of outsiders who’ve apparently gone native—not only individuals from the French mainland, several with disreputable backgrounds, but also a Dutch couple, an ex-Indian Army major, and miscellaneous part-time residents and visitors, among them a brothel madam whom Maigret had once rescued.
Over a couple of days, until a Sunday morning, Maigret conducts interviews but mostly remains in the hotel bar, having meals, drinking, keeping to local routines such as making the twice daily visit to the harbour to meet the passengers disembarking from the ferry. And does he of course eventually get his man? We have to wait till the end to find out whether it’s a man or woman, whether it’s a group of conspirators, or indeed whether the whole mystery is solved without further tragedy.
At first I got distracted by Simenon’s apparent punning. Maigret begins to see himself as a former acquaintance views him, no longer thin or maigre but carrying middle-age spread; then there are the names — Lechat, Pyke, even Porquerolles — which grabbed my attention for their feline, piscine and porcine roots. Then I was reminded of Agatha Christie’s island-set mysteries, such as Poirot’s case in Evil Under the Sun (1941). But presently, like Maigret, I became lulled by the sultry setting which the chief inspector absorbed like a rock absorbs the heat of the sun. And when the bells ring for Sunday Mass and he is taken back to his childhood memories we too realise that our accumulated experiences are composed of circles within circles, each remembrance evoking another:
One was led to the belief that the quality, the density of the air was not the same as elsewhere. One could distinctly hear the hammer striking the bronze, which gave out some sort of note, but it was then that the phenomenon would begin: a first ring would carry into the pale and still cool sky, would extend hesitantly, like a smoke ring, becoming a perfect circle out of which other circles would form by magic, ever increasing, ever purer.Chapter 8
Simenon characterises Maigret’s reaction here as “innocent amazement”, as when one watches a firework. Such moments of lyricism, and there are a few, punctuate his steady, patient investigations, with question and answer interviews played out like the games of chess and draughts he observes in the hotel bar. Once he spots the opening to the end game — the motivation for Marcellin’s murder — he is able to home in on the guilty party and wrap up the game. Just like his fictional detective Simenon reveals himself as a master strategist in this accomplished policier.
No 7 of my 15 Books of Summer and a book read for Summer in Other Languages