If one thinks of the great detective story writers from the Golden Age that have received serious and continued critical attention over the decades, the names that immediately spring to mind are Poe, Doyle, Christie, Hammett and Chandler. The only mystery author from that era to have received an equivalent level of attention in translation probably remains Belgian writer Georges Simenon. The prolific writer of dozens of non-mystery works (which he termed ‘romans durs’ or ‘hard novels’), he remains best-known internationally as the creator of Jules Maigret of the Paris Police Judiciaire. Competing with Sherlock Holmes for the most oft-filmed character on film and television, the impact on popular culture has been enormous. So, starting with one the Chief Inspector’s earliest case …
I offer the following review as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog, which today celebrates Simenon’s work. You should head over there right away and check out the other titles being unforgotten.
“It was on 27 June 1930 that Chief Inspector Maigret had his first encounter with the dead man”
Originally published in 1931 in France as ‘Monsieur Gallet, décédé’, this was the third novel in the series, first appearing in English as ‘The Death of Monsieur Gallet’ in 1932 with a translation by the noted mystery writer Fulton Oursler under his pen name ‘Anthony Abbot’. Although I also have this book in an Italian version (‘Il defunto signor Gallet’), today I am using the English translation on my shelves, which is the later one by Margaret Marshall, published in 1963 by Penguin under the somewhat prosaic title, it has to be said, Maigret Stonewalled. As it’s the earliest of the Maigret novels I have in English, I thought I would pick this one for Patti’s meme. But enough preambling – what’s the case actually about?
During a very hot Summer, the body is found of a commercial traveler in his hotel room in Sancerre. Shot in the face and then stabbed in the heart, the gunman seems to have got clean away after inflicting the fatal stabbing with the victim’s own knife as the poor man tried to fend off his attacker. The victim was a regular visitor known as Clement but it quickly emerges that he was actually Émile Gallet. An outwardly conventional petit bourgeois living on the outskirts of Paris, he had in fact constructed an elaborate double life, which he had been leading for the best part of 18 years. He arranged for pre-written postcards to be sent to his haughty wife (of noble birth) from the various stops on his old route, faked letters from his old employer and even kept a false ledger of sales to make his wife believe that he really was still doing his old job. But perhaps all was well with his scheme as he had also started secretly receiving mail from a ‘Mr Jacob’, apparently demanding money. This is of course a classic theme in Simenon’s work – that of a man who dreams of another life and comes a cropper when trying to enact it, so it is fascinating to see it here in embryonic form.
“… I know you have special methods in Paris, and if I don’t disturb you, I should very much like to learn something by watching you.”
Maigret, having been anxious to be rid of this seemingly dull case, becomes haunted by the elusive character of Gallet / Clement and the strange life this apparently ordinary man was living, apparently pushed to extremes by a wife from a once aristocratic family who felt she had married beneath her and a cold-blooded son who seemed to have no love at all for his father. Maigret soaks up the atmosphere of the small fly infested town and takes over the murder scene, trying to recreate the man’s final moments. This is dramatically interrupted when a forensic technician, trying to reconstitute the charred fragments of a letter from the fireplace, is shot at twice from outside the window with the same gun that killed Gallet. The shots seem to have come from near the wall of the adjoining property outside the window (hence the title), which is so overgrown and unused that no one was seen perpetrating either of the shootings. While the plot is complicated – with a reversal of identity worthy of Ross Macdonald and a murder method that is certainly ingenious – one of the most enjoyable scenes is much more low-key and comes when a gendarme asks to observe Maigret at work so he might learn from him. The inspector kindly lets him stay, but finds this amusing because, as he would always say in later books, disclaims to have any kind of ‘method’. Simenon demonstrates both his mastery of plot and of atmosphere and character and also builds in a surprising social angle to the story.
This is a book that simply but effectively evokes a time and place with sticky, sweaty accuracy and depicts various (and largely unsympathetic) characters with tremendous skill as we eventually find out what was driving the sickly Gallet, who killed him, who is Jacob, why Gallet’s son and his mistress were in the vicinity of the murder even though they have apparently unbreakable alibis and much more besides – all packed into a compact but wonderfully realised short novel.
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