MAIGRET SETS A TRAP (1955) by Georges Simenon

Simenon-Maigret-Sets-a-TrapA psychopath is stalking the women of a small district in Paris and Jules Maigret of the Police Judiciaire is under pressure to find the culprit. Pretty soon, after a failed attack, an arrest is made – but then another murder is committed. Is it possible that Maigret got the wrong man? And who is truly responsible for the crimes anyway?

I submit this review for Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘World Traveler’ category; the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog (for links to other participants’ reviews, click here); and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog – you should head to these great sites now.

“Doesn’t your responsibility frighten you a bit?”
Maigret understood at once.
“I suppose you’re referring to the murders in the 18th arrondissement?”

Originally published in 1955 in France as ‘Maigret tend un piège’, the English translation by Daphne Woodward first appeared 10 years later and seems to have been the one used through all subsequent editions. This doesn’t hurt the book particularly I’m glad to say, due in part to the fact that she largely resists the temptation to be too idiomatic (and indeed goes the other way by retaining the ‘madame’ and ‘monsieur’ soubriquet, as was the convention with books and movies at the time), making it seem less dated. This is none the less a novel of its time, when it was possible to track down all Parisian button sellers virtually in a day and all vagrants were seemingly known personally by the police. Yet it is clear that they do not know everything:

“He was a man unlike others, a man who killed without any of the reasons other people can understand, in an almost childish way, afterward tearing his victim’s clothing as though by whim.”

Maigret-sets-a-trap-BBC-radioThe novel begins ‘in media res’ during a hot and humid August with five women dead and Maigret ready to spring a huge and elaborate trap. We then flash back to understand just what the detective is up to. This helps build up suspense but also keeps the emphasis firmly on Maigret’s sense of urgency and responsibility in his efforts to stop the killings. In fact he find himself somewhat at odds because his usual ‘methods’ (even though he claims not to have them) are failing him – he just can’t get a handle on what kid of person the murderer might be. instead we are taken into the realm of abnormal psychology and Maigret finds himself an ally in the shape of Professor ???. While Simenon often gives the impression of never having met a clause he didn’t like, delivering a great many such prolonged paragraph-length sentences like the one here above, this does keep the story very proximate to Maigret even though the book is in the third person. Ultimately a small, seemingly insignificant physical clue is found – a button – leading to a man Maigret believes to be the killer – and it is here that the book becomes truly fascinating. As often with Simenon it is the strained relationships between men and women that are caught best and here we get two as the man is caught in a battle of wills between his wife and his mother. But then there is a clever twist when all the detective’s theories are thrown in the air when another woman is killed while the suspect was in custody. Have Maigret’s faculties really deserted him in the face of a truly inhuman killer?

“Maigret had made a mistake. Would another man, in his situation, have avoided it? That was a question he was often to ask himself afterward, and of course he never found a satisfactory answer to it.”

One of the delights of this book is how modern it feels – it seems extraordinary in fact to be reading a serial killer book nearly sixty years after its original publication that conforms so closely to the recognised template still employed to tell such stories today, though this does tend to suggest that really they all emerge from the long shadow of the Jack the Ripper case too of course. None the less, the development of the almost intimate relationship between the killer and investigator, the sense of panic that invades the small area in Montmartre, the eventual emergence of a hidden pattern, the last-minute twist and the eventual showdown, are elements we will recognise and greatly enjoy.

Anyone interested in finding out more about Simenon and his novels should seriously consider checking out Steve Trussel’s massive Maigret web resource at: www.trussel.com/f_maig.htm

Georges Simenon meets Jean Gabin on the set.

Georges Simenon meets Jean Gabin on the set.

Like virtually all of the Maigret stories, the novel has been filmed several times for television and the cinema. Michael Gambon was Maigret in a version for British television in the 90s and his adaptation of this novel – rather too sedate, like the show as a whole if truth be told, can be viewed on YouTube in four segments: here, here, here and here. The first adaptation, starring Jean Gabin (he would play the role in two further films), remains far and away the best of them to my thinking however. Released in English-speaking territories simply as Inspector Maigret, this  movie  was shot entirely in the studio and on the backlot and benefits enormously from this, delivering a tightly controlled movie directed with a firm grip by Jean Dellanoy, one of the many able craftsmen found in French commercial cinema in the postwar era who brought polish if not always much sheen to a wide range of subjects. This is one of his best films from the era and its success led him to make a sequel the following year, Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case, again featuring Gabin.

Jean Gabin and Annie Girardot in 'Maigret tend un piège' (1958).

Jean Gabin and Annie Girardot in ‘Maigret tend un piège’ (1958).

The film expands quite considerably on the novel, making it even more apparent just how ‘interior’ the Simenon book is – plot points that are barely mentioned, like the butcher shop near the scenes of the crime, here becomes a focal point of the action and explains the ‘miracle’ disappearances of the killer even during a police dragnet. We also get a lot more detail about the police activities and of the interaction between Maigret and his men (including a great cameo with Lino Ventura who gets the worst of a judo-trained police woman). It also provides a better role for Annie Girardot as the wife of the man accused of the murderer, her role expanded as befits a great actress. The film is pretty atmospheric, shot mostly at night with able use of atmospheric lighting to keep viewer interest alive as Simenon’s plot unfolds – where the book has virtually no action, here we get a strong sense of urgency through detailed camera moves, beginning with the gloved killer prowling the streets and then taunting the police with phone calls (another detail not in the book). The movie also spices things up again with an invented interlude with an informant which includes a brief flash of nudity, fascinating for such an early film (and indeed it was originally censored overseas though has now been restored). Just as good as the book in its own way, it dramatises the story with great expertise and creates a cinematic equivalent for Simenon’s very literary story – the two can be enjoyed quite separately as superb if truly complimentary versions of the same story.

The entire film, looking great in its restored edition, was until recently available, with English subtitles, on YouTube, but currently seems to have vanished – here is the trailer:

Maigret tend un piège / Inspector Maigret (1958)
Director: Jean Delannoy
Producer: J.P. Guibert
Screenplay: Jean Delannoy, R.M. Arlaud and Michel Audiard
Cinematography: Louis Page
Art Direction: René Renoux
Music: Paul Misraki
Cast: Jean Gabin, Annie Girardot, Olivier Hussenot, Lucienne Bogaert, Jeanne Boitel, André Valmy, Lino Ventura

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge, France, Friday's Forgotten Book, Georges Simenon, Maigret, Paris, Police procedural, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to MAIGRET SETS A TRAP (1955) by Georges Simenon

  1. Sergio – One of the things I’ve always liked about Jules Maigret is his humanity. I know you don’t mention it specifically, but it’s part of the reason I think for which we see the relationships here. And so many of Simenon’s books still really resonate today. To me that’s a sign of real talent. Thanks for reminding me of it.

    • Thanks Margot – there is a genuine interest in the foibles of people from all walks of life tht lies at the ehart of the man, no question about it. A real contrast to the classic detective only interested in puzzles of course.

      • justjack says:

        Margot and Sergio, I think you’ve hit on something that up till now I couldn’t put my finger on. Often, there are times in the middle of a story where Maigret decides to plunk himself down in a cafe, have a couple of drinks, and then just zone out. Companions (either police underlings, or important characters in the story at hand) will be sitting with him, trying to engage him in discussing the latest developments, and Maigret refuses to respond. He just sits there, totally checked out of the case, looking at the folks around him, and all he wants to do is comment on The Human Parade. It would drive me nuts–I couldn’t figure out what was going on in Maigret’s head. But I think your description is fitting. This is another manifestation of why Maigret is a police inspector in the first place: he’s just plain fascinated by what makes people tick.

        I also am intrigued by Maigret’s fast and loose interpretation of “police procedure.” He sure does fly by the seat of his pants an awful lot. His reliance on intuition reminds me of a later, less affable, less lucky in love police inspector who also liked to sit in a pub and unwind over a drink, Morse. And Simenon’s indifference to keeping whodunnit a secret until the very end makes me think of good ol’ Columbo.

        Hmm. Now that I think of it, it’s an odd coincidence that Morse and Columbo both prefer to go by just their last names. Doesn’t Maigret do the same thing? I seem to recall that even his wife calls him “Maigret?”

        Even more so than the 87th Precinct stories, I think the Maigret novels can be read out of sequence. However, mental case that I am, I feel compelled to start at the beginning and read them in order, so I’m still back in the 30’s. I like the Maigret stories very much; they’re not exactly noir, but they’re not exactly cozy mysteries, either. Entertaining stories, and so far, a fascinating glimpse into the world of Europe between the two world wars.

        • Thanks for the great feedback Jack – I think he is called ‘Jules’ by Mrs M on some occasions but to be honest I couldn’t say where – and of course the formalities of European speech and modes of address at the time would mandate only using the surname. But he is a truly fascinating creation. there is a great moment in this book where his wife notes the childish glee with which he catches raindrops on his tongue – the sensuality of it and the lack of guile i tremendously affecting I find. Thanks again for all the detailed reflections.

  2. TracyK says:

    Sergio, I recently bought a few Maigret books and a couple of non-Maigret books by Simenon. Looking forward to reading them when I have time. I read a lot of the Maigret books years ago, but I am sure I did not read everything. This is a great review and overview and entices me to get to them sooner.

    I knew I had heard of the Trussel site. It also has great resources on Howard Fast (E. V. Cunningham). I will definitely get back to it for more information on Maigret and his books.

  3. Colin says:

    Nice article Sergio. I think I said before that I’m not really familiar with Simenon’s work, but I have taken steps to remedy that.

    Recently, I picked up Maigret in Court, A Man’s Head and My Friend Maigret.

    • Brilliant Colin – My Friend Maigret is a fantastic place to start – and if you fancy you should watch the movie I’ve linked ot – it’s an excellent edition of a great movie and the subtitles are pretty decent too.

      • Colin says:

        Ah, that’s good to know. The movie, new to me too, shall be watched at the first opportunity.

        • Really hope you enjoy it – Gabin of course is good in virtually anything anyway and Annie Girardot was on the cusp of her star peak here – and a great role for the young Lino Ventura too (who ends up on the wrong side of a judo move, back when this seemed like a new fangled gimmick).

          • Colin says:

            Yes, an excellent cast. And I really do need to expand my knowledge of French cinema, which I’ve neglected for a while now.

          • I’m a big fan as you may have noticed of course … sorry if my trumpeting of the movie now seems a bit moot that it’s vanished off YouTube – I don’t even have a version handy that I could lend you at the mo darn it!

  4. Georges Simenon is probably one of few authors whose books are hard to come by in secondhand bookshops in Mumbai. The only time I came across one, it turned out to be a badly mutilated copy. I’m glad the English translation came out well in this case though, quite frankly, I wouldn’t know one way or the other, not having learnt French, and having to depend solely on the translator’s take. I’m assuming, of course, that Simenon never wrote in English. I look forward to reading about the Parisian crime scene (in the period) through the eyes of Jules Maigret. That is a nice picture of the author with Jean Gabin. Thanks very much for this review, Sergio.

    • Cheers Prashant – if you can, watch the movie version on YouTube – it will give you a fair indication of what the book and Simenon are like. Shame his works are rare as they used to be pretty ubiquitous in the 60s and 70s (they were often used as ways to teach french actually as the language is fairly straightforward and unadorned).

      • For some reason his books are the only ones I haven’t seen around. But then, a lot of books that are commonplace in the West are rare in my part of the world. It’s the same with Margaret Millar though I have a few of her husband Ross Macdonald’s novels. I’ll check out the movie version on YouTube, that’s one thing I can do.

        • Millar was never as successful as her husband in terms of sales once his work took off in the 60s, while the Maigret books, very popular from the 30s into the 70s, are propbably a bit less fashionable now (and not very sexy either). You used to be able to get hardback omnibus editions with 4 or 5 books in each (as the novels are quite short – usually about 150 pages). Books in translation are always a tougher sell fo course – Simenon was one of the few that made the leap but he is probably much less available today than he used to be. Hope you find a few Prashant, his was a very singular but vivid talent.

  5. Excellent review, Sergio. You’ve peaked my interest in one of the obvious gaps in my reading – again. Will have to get round to Simenon at some point. Is this a good starting point?

    • Excellent place to start chum though not actually the easiest title to get hold of (no idea about Kindle however). From the this period the stories are a little more relaxed in style while the books from the 30s are more complexly and densely plotted. Having said that, the Maigret stories are more notable for character and scene setting even though the narratives are usually very twisty if they need to be, especially when it comes to elaborate background stories explaining the actions of killers and victims.

  6. Maddeningly, it seems that since writing and publishing the post the YouTube video has vanished, which suggests it had been posted illegally. Having suggested that everyone have a look at it I feel a trifle sheepish now … The TV version, lasting 52 minutes and starring the great Michael Gambon, is still there at the links I provided at least. You can also view it all in one go here:

  7. I think Jeff Meyerson and Art Scott have collected all the Maigrets. Jeff has read them all, too. I try to read a couple Simenon novels each year. He’s an amazing writer!

  8. John says:

    In doing some sorting of my disorganized book collection I found several Maigret books and have set them aside for a marathon Maigret reading binge sometime this summer. I have At the Gai Moulin, Maigret in Holland, Madame Maigret’s Own Case, Maigret and the Apparition, and maybe a few others. It ought to be fun catching up on a landmark literary sleuth whose adventures I have never read. I’ve only read Simenon’s crime novels without Maigret.

  9. Richard says:

    Like George, I try to read a couple of the Maigret novels or short story collections each year. A favorite of the latter is Maigret’s Pipe.

  10. Top stuff! Simenon was the absolute greatest (in my own humble opinion!)… and what an output!

    Really intrigued to watch the film now.

    Thanks for all the time and effort that so obviously go into these reviews.

    Steve

  11. Although it’s one of the few times Maigret smokes cigarettes, this good story is quite typical of the man. He often relied on psychology during his investigations, and in this case he consults with the famous psychiatrist, Dr. Tissot. Maigret attended medical school before becoming a policeman and continued to study medicine informally throughout his career. (One can learn more about this aspect in my pastiche, Doctor Maigret, an eBook available through Amazon and other online booksellers.)

    • The role of the psychiatrist is certainly one of the more salient aspects of the book, no question, thanks for pointing that out. Not an e-book reader yet I’m afraid but doubtless I’ll get there in the end.

      • I wasn’t an eBook reader until I wrote this book. It’s much more satisfying than I anticipated. It was quick and easy to download a free reader from Amazon onto my computer, and I really like the fact that it was FREE.

  12. I don’t know where you’re located so don’t know if you can get it but MHZ tv has a series of mysteries (on film), primarily from Europe. On Tuesdays, they have Maigret (French, with subtitles) with Bruno Cremer.
    This coming Tuesday (9 pm EDT & PDT) is:
    Maigret
    Maigret at the Doctor’s #150
    Tuesday, June 11, 09:00 pm on MHz Worldview
    Mondays and Wednesdays they start off with an Italian series about a good hearted priest (Terrance Hill as Don Matteo) who solves mysteries (a little to saccharine for my tastes) followed by another show, which vary, sometimes a series, some times a one-off.
    They hve just started a mini-series Frank Riva…with no less than a much, much older Borsalino/Le Samourai/Purple Noon man himself Alain Delon.
    Tonight starts another series from Sweden which I will check out.
    What is especially good for me is they have one showing at 9 pm, and than another at midnight.
    Here’s the link:
    http://www.mhznetworks.org/ I’m in LA and MHZ is affiliated with KCET here, but not directly linked. MHz has the info on who carries their programs.
    This Maigret is filmed outside of France so they have the proper ‘look’ to it…you’d have to see if its style is to your taste. I know French so I enjoy it as much for the language as the story…

    I just found your website and really look forward to exploring it. Thank you for your dedication and much hard work.

    Duration: 1:28:00

    Description: Doctor Baron is a respectable physician, married with two children. When the family’s maid dies of poisoning, Maigret appears and begins his investigation. Directed by Claudio Tonetti, 2004, color. In French with English subtitles. collapse expanded text

    • Thanks for all the info Gabriele – I’m based in the UK so wouldn’t have easy access to this channel. I have seen the Terence Hill show in Italy – thanks for the links. Practically all of the adaptations starring the later Bruno Cremer are available on DVD (very useful info on these here) thankfully. They have been very popular in Italy too.

      • Thanks for the reply. Well, maybe some of your followers might live in the US and find something of interest on the channel. MHz is also sellding the dvds but in today’s economy I can’t justify buying dvds…I can’t decide if Bruno Cremer is a very good actor or if I’m just so happy to hear the Simenon stories in French (after listening to them in English on the BbC4 extra) that it doesn’t matter. They also have some of the Dona Leone series…in German, but still in Venice. I think the German production is probably much better than if it were done by Italians…
        Bunker Hill in downtown LA is gone but I’m fortunate to live on Mt Washington (above Highland Park) in an older (101 years old) house surrounded by houses that still whisper “it could have happened here…” about the stories based in LA.

        • Thanks Gabriele – I had no idea the Leon books were being adapted for German TV – sounds fascinating! I was recently re-watching the 1947 version of The High Window by Raymond Chandler, The Brasher Doubloon, and a lot of it was filmed around Bunker Hill – thanks again.

  13. My thanks to Gabriele, too. I’m in the USA and MHz TV looks like a great resource.
    And another thing on Simenon: Did you know there’s a new (British) owner of Simenon’s literary estate and it’s working with Penguin to put out all his books in new English translations? The first book is coming out in November and it’s a Maigret. In fact, it’s the first in the series, Pietr the Latvian, and in my opinion one of the best I’ve read so far.

  14. Pingback: 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

  15. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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