Maigret Defends Himself
by Georges Simenon.
Translated by Howard Curtis (2019).
Penguin Classics 2019 (1964).
Another way to translate Simenon’s Maigret se défend is ‘Maigret on the defensive’: as a title it’s slightly more indicative of the Detective Chief Inspector’s state of mind, I think, than the more legalistic or pugilistic stance suggested by the version offered in Howard Curtis’s new translation. Because this policier is about two related psychologies — Maigret’s, and that of the unknown person who is trying to tarnish Maigret’s reputation and career — the resulting conflict does rather put him on the defensive.
When Maigret and his physician friend Dr Pardon discuss whether the policeman has ever come across a ‘truly wicked’ and spiteful criminal they are not to know that Maigret will soon feel such a person could exist when Maigret is deliberately placed in a compromising position, threatening to lead to his enforced early retirement.
But his usual patient detecting methods which eventually lead to criminal perpetrators being identified may have met their match when he comes up against entrenched privilege and influence; are he and Mme Maigret facing an uneventful sequestered life in Meung-sur-Loire in place of the metropolitan bustle they’ve become used to? Or will he go against his superiors’ express orders to get to the bottom of matter?
This 1964 novella has Maigret in his habitual haunts in the seedy underbelly of France’s capital, rubbing up against the likes of pimps and prostitutes, jewel thieves, backstreet abortionists and dishonest bartenders. But it also has him entering posh restaurants and investigating the private clubs of powerful influencers and nouveaux riches. These latter groups, seemingly untouchable by the law, lead Maigret to wonder whether he is facing the truly wicked or simply those closing ranks to defend their privileged status from prying eyes.
As always the inspector displays his sterling qualities in the face of obfuscation and dishonesty. He knows when to turn a blind eye, but also when to doggedly pursue a lead; above all he is interested in people and what makes them tick, often trying to imagine himself in their position to understand their motivations. And, because he is aware that little in life is either black or white, he is himself prepared to operate in the grey areas to help obtain a just, more equitable result.
In his personal life he prizes loyalty where his wife, his friends and his long term colleagues are concerned, and often extends that loyalty to the petty criminals he has known over the years. So it must seem unfair when his idiosyncratic procedures which customarily yield results are doubted, and his integrity and his immediate future targeted.
To say much more would be to risk massive spoilers, so I shall conclude by saying that this is a policier that satisfies on many levels, as a narrative, as a period piece and as a psychological puzzle. Whether it operates in a particular chronological period is unclear — Maigret, now three years off officially retiring at 45, is variously estimated as having been born anytime in the 1880s to the first decade of the 20th century — but such uncertainty only adds to its noirish quality. To give one example of that uncertainty: though cigarettes were recognised as the cause of the lung cancer epidemic in the 1940s and 1950s and those concerns are expressed here right at the start, the controversies raged around the habit well into the sixties (when this tale appeared) and of course well beyond. Curtis’s unobtrusive rendering nevertheless manages to keep up a suitable semblance of timelessness so such calculations .
This is the eighth novella I’ve reviewed for Novellas in November #NovNov, the ninth review will appear in early December. I’ll have visited Austria, Russia, India, France and Scotland as well as parts of England, with Germany still to come; and I’ll have touched genres including science fiction, crime fiction, fantasy and psychological thriller, with a nonfiction novella next.