MAIGRET STONEWALLED (1931) by Georges Simenon

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.”

(photo © ErlingMandelmann.ch)

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

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

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

18 Responses to MAIGRET STONEWALLED (1931) by Georges Simenon

  1. Patti Abbott says:

    Thanks and love you early birds!!

  2. Sergio – Oh I’ve always thought the Maigret series hasn’t gotten the press it deserved. Thanks for reminding me of this one. I’m glad to that you mention Simenon’s skill at evoking atmosphere. It’s one of his real talents as a writer I think.

    • Thanks Margot, as always you are very kind. I think there was once a whole generation of readers who probably read Maigret just to learn French as Simenon used quite a limited vocabulary, which was great if you had the original and a translation in your hand. This has tended to belie some of their merits – of course, it didn’t help that Simenon was so profligate and so prolific (claimed to have slept with hundreds of women with presumably one book published per bedded maiden – well, at least the books survive intact, no idea about his reputation).

  3. Bill Selnes says:

    Sergio: I read many Simenon books decades ago but had gotten away from him until I read The Premier last year. After reading the book I was reminded how skilful a writer was Simenon. His books are not flashy but his characters are so well done.

  4. John says:

    I can’t recall that I have ever read a Maigret novel. I know Simenon best from the many, many movies I’ve seen based on his non-Maigret books. My favorites have been La Veuve Couderc, M. Hire and Feux Rouges. Consequently, I have been more and more interested in those roman durs and his psychological suspense thrillers. The most intriguing bit about Simenon I’ve come across in my recent reading is that he pared down his writing to the most essential, tended to throw out anything “literary” and didn’t like his writing if it seemed liked writing. I wonder why no one has ever likened him to James M Cain whose approach was exactly the same. Or maybe someone already has and I haven’t found that analogy yet.

    • Cheers John. I love Patrice Leconte’s film of Monsieur Hire, a small masterpiece by any definition. Would love to see the 1946 version starring Michel Simon known as Panique but the French DVD has no subtitles apparently … Personally, I think Simenon was a far superior writer to Cain, with none of the latter’s weakness for melodrama (and opera) for starters and a much more realistic approach to character let’s face it. Having said that, some of the Simenon plots can be pretty far=fetched too!

  5. Mike Ripley says:

    I am well aware that I have two glaring blind spots in my mystery fiction education: John Dickson Carr and Simenon, despite much good natured bullying by Colin Dexter to read the former and the late Harry Keating championing the latter. About once every three years I do try both authors and, lately, Simenon is gradually securing a place in my head if not my heart.
    Years ago, when I first tried the Maigret books, I was influenced by the (then) allegations that Simenon’s brother had been closely involved in the Belgian fascist movement and that Georges’ own war time record was somewhat suspect. I was appalled at the casual anti-Semitism of the Maigrets I tried (ones published around 1935-37) and in one of them it appeared that the author, rather than a character, was complaining about “all the train-loads of Jews arriving in France every day” (refugees fleeing the Nazis).
    That put me off Simenon for quite a while, but then whilst doing an author tour with the late Magdalene Nabb, an ex-pat Brit living in Italy, I was intrigued by the fact that in every bookshop we appeared she demanded to know “where the Maigrets were” and was stunned to find there were none.
    I suspect that Maigret, if not Simenon, has dropped even further off the radar for mystery readers
    outside France – perhaps in France also – yet Penguin paperbacks are easily and cheaply available here second-hand. Which is where I have restarted my self-eductaion process recently, with “Madame Maigret’s Friend” and “Maigret Has Scruples” both written in the 1950s, which I have found far more palatable that his 1930s period. I doubt, however, that I will be totally converted and insist on reading the entire canon. Life is simply too short – and I have John Dickson Carr to deal with!

    • Thanks very much Mike, fascinating stuff. Actually, in this book from 1931 the character of ‘Jacob’ is identified (seemingly unnecessarily) as being Jewish by a couple of pretty unpleasant characters, albeit with zero comment from Maigret (and Simenon), though he usually lets charactrs speak for themselves (as it were). My feeling was that the author was trying to reflect the sort of thing that certain sorts of people would have said, and that it would have been seen deliberately as unpalatable but truthful. It would be different if Maigret said such things. But you’re not the only person to have raised this about Simenon and he did head off to the US after the war when accused, albeit obliquely, of having collaborated – or anyway of not having resisted enough by allowing his books to be filmed by studios run by Nazis, though it’s not like he could have done anythign to stop them. The complexity of the issue of French collaboration with the Nazis during the war is such that it remains highly problemaic and divisive – which is really interesting if you are prepared to spend a lot of time looking into it. Julian Symons singled out My Fried Maigret (1948) from the immediate postwar period.

      But you really have to try some of the Carr books mate, you have to – do yourself a favour and at the very least get hold of The Judas Window, The Emperor’s Snuff-box and She Died a Lady, classics all!

  6. Richard says:

    It seems a familiar theme, Maigret becoming fascinated or obsessed with a character, usually a potential suspect or victim, in a book. The one I read is the same, only instead of the victim it’s a suspect. Every time I read one I wonder why I’ve not read more, am not pulling more from my shelf.

    • Thanks Richard – the books are largely driven by a sense of profound interest of people and awareness of the power of surroundings to affect them. In that sense the books can perhaps be a bit samey but there are some really fascinating characters here, and it is all told with such quiet confidence! Hard nto to be impressed really.

  7. I find I need to be in a reflective mood to read Maigret mysteries. I’ve read dozens of Simenon’s works, but there still is a mountain of his books waiting for me to get to them.

    • It is nice to be spoiled for choice, but I quite agree, you’ve got to find the right mind set. Somewhat to my annoyance, of late I’ve found a lot of the translations that I bought years ago a lot less satisfactory than I remember which has tended to put me off a bit. Think I’ll just have to bight the bullet and look for some other ones, especially given how extensive the bibliography actually is!

  8. Yvette says:

    I wish I hadn’t read of the allegations against Simenon – even a whiff of someone allegedly ‘collaborating’ with the Nazis is enough to ruin my digestion. I’ve only recently learned of Coco Chanel’s alleged behavior during the French Occupation and have been totally and completely turned off anything having to do with the Chanel name. When I mentioned this to someone posting about Chanel and how fabulous she was, their answer was: I don’t care, she was wonderful. In other words, don’t confuse me with the facts.

    As the years pass and people die off and memories dim, I’m afraid the ugly stuff just gets buried.

    I hope the suspicions against Simenon are just that – unproven suspicions.

    • Hi Yvette, I share your despair about this and an unwillingness to bury ones head in the sand. In the case of Simenon this seems to have been less of a case of what he did and more a process of national hand-wringing related to the fact that France as a nation could have done so much more and not capitulated so easily, which did lead to a witch hunt mentality with prominent people like Simenon and the director Henri-George Clouzot being singled out for attacks that were pretty unfounded beyond personal attacks and grievances, this while the church was hiding Nazi criminals for decades with impunity. Simenon was bound to be a target as well because given the extent to which the French national pride had been wounded, he was of course Belgian. In the case of Simenon I feel a lot less strongly about these weak allegations than I do about the charges of antisemitism against Sayers, which i think are much more grounded in reality and evidence in the books though this is pretty controversial too of course. As far as I know, Simenon didn’t actively collaborate in the sense of naming names (there’s a phrase to conjure with) and in fact did a lot less for the Nazis that PG Wodehouse, so … There is an interesting profile of Simenon by Mark Lawson that looks into this, here.

  9. Sergio, I got much more than an excellent review of MAIGRET STONEWALLED. The comments were a revelation, particularly Simenon’s possible antisemitism and even more shockingly Wodehouse’s links with the Nazis. You let it hang, Sergio, but you can’t pull a Wodehouse over me!! I have been reading Wodehouse, one of my favourite writers, since college and I had never heard the like of it (via internet), especially the part that he might have been in the pay of the Nazis or that he was being persecuted by the British government or that MI5 was on his tail. I think I’ll stick to reading and re-reading his books and leave his past, whatever it was, where it belongs — in the past. Lawson’s profile of Simenon is pretty good. There’s so much I have learned already about Simenon without reading even one of his books.

    • Hello Prashant, really glad you enjoyed the post but apologies for any unpleasantness caused. No denying that there is more to the author’s personal histories than might be gleaned from a reading of the books, but this I also believe: Wodehouse’s books are a joy forever and I think Simenon’s work will also live on and they should be able to speak for themselves hopefully.

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