Fighting the Flu with Inspector Maigret

Georges Simenon
Georges Simenon

I had the flu back in October and finally got rid of it with an antibiotic called Azithromycin, but just before Christmas I got it again and it’s truly annoying, mostly because I can’t work out.

I’ve been staying in bed, emerging just to stoke the fire and fill the woodbox, so I’ve needed the very best in reading material, and for this I have turned to Georges Simenon, the creator of nearly 100 novels about Inspector Jules Maigret of the French Police Judiciaire.

I’ve been reading a ‘Maigret Trio’ of short novels, written by Simenon Connecticut in the fifties and sixties: Maigret’s Failure (1956), Maigret in Society (1960), and Maigret and the Lazy Burglar (1961). These are three of Simenon’s most brilliant Maigret novels, and that’s really saying something.

Each one gives the perceptive reader new insights into Inspector (later Superintendent) Maigret and the world around him. I’ve found that after about ten or fifteen years I can reread them with renewed enjoyment.

Sometimes I’ve forgotten the plot altogether, but even if I remember how it comes out, I can look at how the novel is put together, and I am always amazed anew at the skill of the author in presenting the world in which the crime occurred, Maigret’s investigations, and the denouement, or resolution, which sometimes, as in life, is no resolution at all.

Invariably Simenon discovers some new surprising truth about human nature.

My mother was a big fan of the Maigret books, so I always found them lying around, but they are definitely worth seeking out.

In Maigret’s Failure, Superintendent is asked by the Secretary of the Interior to meet with a wealthy political supporter,  a butcher who was a schoolmate of Maigret’s in his home town of St. Fiacre, a guy they called Boum Boum.

“In every class there is always a boy like him, taller than the others and fatter, with a kind of unhealthy corpulence.”

Maigret’s father, I should explain, was a bailiff, or steward, for the Count de St. Fiacre, and Boum Boum’s father, also a butcher, had tried to bribe him by sneaking some banknotes under his tobacco jar when he wasn’t looking.

To make a long story short, Boum Boum asks for protection from someone who has been sending him threatening letters. Maigret discovers that Boum Boum has been sending the letters himself, but still assigns an inspector to watch his house.

Of course Boum Boum gets shot anyway, and that is Maigret’s supposed failure, but protecting a guy like that is an impossible proposition. In fact, as he carries on the investigation, Maigret notices that time after time, whenever he tells someone that Boum has been murdered, they react with delight.

It’s a fantastic story, with chapter headings like “The Distrustful Secretary and the Wife Who Doesn’t Try to Understand.”

Maigret in Society, I nominate for the best Maigret novel ever. It’s brilliantly conceived and brilliantly crafted. When I first read it twenty years ago, it triggered a dream about my girlfriend in college, now a supreme court justice in Nevada, and I had to write to her and tell her that I still loved her, and that I was glad to have loved her all my life, even though I hadn’t seen her in 20 years.

In the novel the victim is an octogenarian French diplomat who has been carrying on a correspondence with a countesse his entire life, although they never see each other. She has been obliged to marry the count, but has never concealed her love for the diplomat, even when the count’s brother dies and he (the count) is obliged to sire an heir, a very delicate proposition, I assure you.

This case is confounding to Maigret because he remembers his childhood, when he stood in awe of the Countesse de St. Fiacre, and even though he is a superintendent of police in his 50s, he is still non-plussed talking with the aristocracy.

At one point he has a dream about the lawyer, the diplomat, the countess and the doctor, who are all in their eighties, and he looks down and sees he is wearing short pants!

The solution to the mystery (why did the killer keep on shooting when the first shot was clearly fatal?) is among the most brilliant in all of detective fiction.

Maigret and the Lazy Burglar shows Maigret two years before retirement. He responds to an early morning phone call of a body in the Bois de Boulogne, which turns out to be the body of a burglar whom Maigret knows, a crafty fellow named Cuendet whom he was able to catch only once.

Unlike most burglars, Cuendet only burgled houses when the occupants were at home, which makes him a pretty fascinating character right there.

At this point, Maigret is just two years from retirement, and the role of the police has been reduced to doing errands for the office of the public prosecutors, a bunch of young politically connected guys who think they know it all.

In this case, since Cuendet once served time in prison, the public prosecutor determines that his death is part of an underworld vendetta and Maigret is essentially ordered not to do anything about it, but to concentrate on a recent string of bank robberies.

Maigret solves the crime anyway, more for sport than anything else, and catches the bank robbers, but his interviews of Cuendet’s mother Old Justine, the tart who saw him last, and, evenutally, Cuendet’s mistress, give us a fascinating profile of the lazy burglar.

Maigret seems mostly concerned with Old Justine, a character in the Rue de Mouffetard, who is confident her son will not leave her without a penny. When he interviews Cuendet’s mistress, who knows nothing about her boyfriend’s profession, he subtly suggests that Cuendet may have left “a suitcase containing personal effects…”

Essentially he tips her off that she better find another place for the suitcase before, in due course, the examining magistrate should issue a proper search warrant.

Turns out Cuendet has been murdered by some rich guy with a sports car who is dallying with his father’s mistress. But it’s only tit for tat because his father had had an affair with the son’s wife.

Maigret imagines telling the story to the well-bred young magistrate.

“Come, come! As if such things were possible. How could a conscientious magistrate, belonging to one of the best professional families in Paris contemplate for a single moment…”

Asked for evidence in this imaginary interview, Maigret holds up the hairs of a wildcat  found on Cuendet’s clothing that came from a rug in the rich man’s car. Then he laughs at the very idea.

So, as I say, he concerns himself with providing for the lazy burglar’s mother in her old age.