Circles within circles

Porquerolles (credit: Bourrichon)

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.

Vincent Van Gogh, ‘Seascape at Saintes-Maries’ (1888)

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

18 thoughts on “Circles within circles

  1. It sounds like for once, Maigret / Simenon does not find „les provinces“ sordid? That alone would make for a nice change …

    Is this a true puzzle with several potential suspects under consideration, or are we basically zeroing in on one person early on and only figuring out the „how“ and „why“? (It sounds like the former?)

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    1. I think Maigret would’ve enjoyed this corner of Provence more if he’d not had Inspector Pyke cramping his style and seemingly judging him! And this is a true puzzle with several suspicious types competing for our attention until the pieces of the jigsaw start slotting into place. So, in reality, it’s really a mix of the usual who and when as well as the how and the why. In other words who among the several dodgy individuals had the means, motivation and opportunity.

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      1. Well, the outsider tagging along is a bit of a mystery trope, so I suppose Maigret had to be in for it at some point! 🙂 Though undoubtedly he‘d have enjoyed the Mediterranen better without the extraneous element. It *is* good to hear about a Maigret investigation again, though, that‘s a real puzzle and not merely the slow, methodical unraveling of small-town sleeze!

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        1. Inspector Pyke is a good foil for Maigret, and though Simenon pokes gentle fun at the English detective on occasion the man does help progress the investigation in tiny ways.

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    1. For me, with opportunities to travel abroad severely hampered by the twin beasts of Brexit and Virus, I really appreciated the idyllic descriptions of a Mediterranean island with its concomitant languor, simple routines, and poetic ambiance. It was a pity Maigret had a job to do…

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  2. I do love the Maigrets and I own this and have probably read it (albeit in an earlier translation). I’m always impressed at how Simenon manages to relocate his detective away from his usual patch, out of his comfort zone, yet still make him work as a character. If I had infinite reading time, I would love to read the books in date order!

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    1. The last of these titles I read was set in Holland, so I wonder where I’ll go next! I not about to commit to a whole new (and almost endless!) series, but I would like to read more Maigret as and when they cross my path.

      I’ve got the scripts of a couple of radio adaptations for BBC Schools in French which I’m hoping to get to in due course. Over the years I’ve watched a few TV Maigrets, specifically Rupert Davies (in now nostalgic black and white), Michael Gambon (in colour) and, most recently (but all too briefly) Rowan Atkinson — all very varied in interpretation and looks but reflecting the detective’s methods, but the books allow one to build one’s own image from the texts.

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        1. It was simply ages since I’d seen the Davies when they were first transmitted—I was nobbut a lad!—and only watched a couple of the Gambon episodes (life was particularly hectic when these were aired, I seem to remember) so the Atkinson episodes were the only ones I was able to give my whole attention to. I know the portrayal wasn’t universally approved of, and viewing figures were low, but I enjoyed it enough to consider giving the novels more serious future consideration.

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  3. I do like when Maigret gets out of Paris occasionally, but the poor man must be fed up with all these foreign detectives tailing him to study his methods – in the last one I read it was an American criminologist who was tagging along!

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    1. Clearly foreign forces were hoping some of Jules Maigret’s success would thus rub off on them! I hope to read more of this series soon, but meanwhile there’s loads else for me to get my teeth into. 🙂

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    1. The quoted passage I found particularly striking, but there were other touches that indicated Maigret’s (and thus Simenon’s) appreciation of the island’s magic.

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  4. I know Maigret more from the radio adaptations than the books. Only a few of the radio episodes take him out of the Paris street and bar setting so I’m curious how well that works – sounds like it does in this book

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    1. Curiously the two Maigret tales I’ve read this side of 2000 have taken him out of Paris to Holland and to Porquerolles — maybe the next one will take me to the mean streets of the metropolis!

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