There is evil in paradise in this Maigret story, which some critics (including Julian Symons) consider to be among the best of the series (no mean feat with over 100 to choose from). It was later adapted for French TV, twice. Unusually, the story is filtered through the eyes of Inspector Pyke of Scotland Yard, sent to study the ‘methods’ of his celebrated colleague.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“Perhaps it was the impeccable correctness of Mr Pyke that made him coarse …”
The story is outwardly straightforward – in the tiny island of Porquerolles (a real place by the way), ex-jailbird Marcellin is shot dead after boasting that Maigret used to be a friend of his. The Commissaire, suffering through a wet Parisian summer, ships off to the island with Pyke. There he finds a tropical paradise with more than a touch of Joseph Conrad about it, its inhabitants having all apparently succumbed to a permanent torpor and indolence. Maigret will eventually succumb too if he stays long enough, he is told. Everything happens in an around the local hotel-restaurant, not insignificantly named the Arche de Noé, where various types at the end of their tether seem to have washed up. There is the wealthy middle-aged Mrs Wilcox, living on her yacht in exile with her young male ‘secretary'; the nihilistic Dutch painter De Greef and his teenage girlfriend Anna; a British Major late of the Indian Army; a dentist who threw in his practice, and his family, when he came to the island; a young maid Jojo; the petty crook Charlot. But why would any of them want to kill Marcellin, who had been living as a beach bum for years – was this really an attack on Maigret by proxy?
What makes the book stand out is partly the descriptions of how the island, subject to powerful Mistral winds, affects Maigret but also the strange competition that sets itself up with Pyke. Maigret is now clearly a celebrity, visited by Scotland Yard so that they can improve themselves, and used by criminals as a calling card. And yet having Pyke there makes him question everything he does, keeping score of how well they both do in the investigation – this adds a great wrinkle to what is, in other ways, a very typical Simenon story (which, as usual, finds little sympathy for young men who accompany older women for money or who have been too weak to detach themselves from their mothers). Ultimately Maigret hangs around the hotel and ferrets out the solution by listening and by intuition, arrives to a bitter ending in which he ends up punching one of the suspects in face in sheer anger (he apologises afterwards, but only to Pyke). It also has a series of strong scenes between him and Ginette, Marcellin’s ex-girlfriend. Years before Maigret had taken her under his wing after putting Marcellin in jail and got her in a sanatorium – but now, heading towards middle age, it turns out that she runs a bordello for an old crone who lives on the island with a weak-willed son, a man Ginette is planning to marry as soon as the old lady dies. Not exactly edifying and romantic and the final death in the story certainly hammers this rather bitter view of humanity home.
“You health, Monsieur Maigret. I never dared to hope that I should one day have the honour of having you to stay.”
Originally published as Mon Ami Maigret, I own two editions of this – one in Italian, translated by Eileen Romano. and one in English, translated by Nigel Ryan. I am quoting from the latter (the cover of my 1961 Penguin reprint can be found at the top of the page), but found it in many ways unsatisfactory – not only does it delete all Simenon’s original chapter titles but occasionally also falls pray to some risible franglais – for instance:
“Used he to go see her in Nice?”
and later we have:
“On the walls were hung engravings …”
The is a great Maigret book, for its linear story so well told and the use of Pyke to make Maigret question himself and his ‘methods’ (which he denies actually exist) and its wonderful atmosphere. The book does lose a few points though just because by being one of the (many) cases in which our protagonist is taken away from Paris, it means that the supporting cast of characters are all missing – this means we have to do without Madame Maigret and the so-called ‘faithful four’ made up of Lucas, Janvier, Lapointe and Torrence (who keeps re-appearing despite having been killed in the first official Maigret novel), which is a shame. So, how did the book fare on screen?
The novel has been adapted for the small screen at least twice. The first is from 1973, made as part of the long-running series Les enquêtes du commissaire Maigret (1967-1990) starring Jean Richard, and co-stars the mighty Gerard Depardieu in the role of De Greef. While this is available on DVD, it doesn’t come with English-language subtitles. You can get most of it on YouTube (see here) but only with automatically generated translated subtitles, which is a bit of a wretched experience after a while to be honest. So I won’t focus too much on this version, not least because it is said that Simenon apparently hated Richard in the role. So instead I am focusing on the 2001 adaptation made for the Franco-Belgian series of feature-length adaptations of the books starring Bruno Cremer. These originally ran from 1991 to 2005 for a total of 54 films, all about 90 minutes in length. The 1973 version is very faithful and does a good job of capturing the exotic atmosphere of the island, which is so crucial to the story. The later adaptation, though basically pretty faithful, is a little bit odd frankly.
For starters it changes several of the character names (Lechat becomes Lachenal, De Greef is now Deferre, Charlot is Carrouge etc.) and even the island has been renamed (but maybe this is precisely because it is a real place)! And more to the point, this version is much less ably presented. In addition Mrs Wilcox now has a villa and no longer resides on a yacht for no very good reason (other than expediency – I guess the producers couldn’t find a boat), whereas in the book her peripatetic existence was a major part of the character. On the whole the 2001 version is a real disappointment because despite sticking mostly to the plot and characters, it ultimately betrays Simenon’s intentions by making the protagonist much more of a sentimentalist and imposing a happy ending on the story (and even inventing another crime for him to solve successfully, to make his triumph even more assured). Thus, despite the glossy production value and period look (roughly 1958, though not spelled out), the 2001 edition disappoints. not least because although Cremer is right for the role, his wardrobe is strangely unconvincing, looking like he is trapped in the 1990s while everyone else is in the 1950s. The 1973 version, which was set in contemporary times, proves much more satisfying and much closer to bringing the actual novel to the screen. The 2001 version does have however one special treat for fans of the BBC mystery show Death in Paradise as a very young Sara Martins co-stars as the maid, Jojo.
DVD Availability: The 2001 version s is available on DVD in France in an edition with optional English subtitles – this is unusual with French DVDs so is well worth getting, even if the adaptation itself is a bit lacking. There are plenty of extras, but they sadly have no subtitles. It is also available in the US but apparently it is technically disappointing.
Mon Ami Maigret (2001)
Director: Bruno Gantillon
Producer: Robert Nador, Ève Vercel
Screenplay: Stéphane Palay
Cinematography: Mário de Carvalho
Art Direction: François Chauvaud, Clara Vinhais
Music: Laurent Petitgirard
Cast: Bruno Cremer, Michael Morris (Pyke), Annie Sinigalia (Ginette), Sara Martins (Jojo), Jean-Michel Portal (Yann Deferre [De Greef]), Anna Korwin (Mrs. Wilcox), Marc Chapiteau (Carrouge [Charlot])
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘mystery that involves water’ category: