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Mystery author #13: Georges Simenon. Part 1

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I had never read anything by French author Georges Simenon - who is still the most famous mystery writer of continental Europe - until I read the two following books, especially considering that a number of his books have been translated intro Icelandic.

All in all I have read four of his romans policier. I am splitting the review in two and will discuss the author in the second one. It will be interesting to read these books, as they are translated by different translators and have been published under various English titles.

Title: Maigret meets a Milord. Originally published in English as Lock 14. Another alternative title (different translation) is The Crime at Lock 14
Original French title: Le Charretier de la ‘Providence’
Translator: Robert Baldick
Series detective: Inspector Maigret
No. in series: 2 (possibly). Several Maigret books were published in the same year and may have been written in a different order from the publication)
Year of publication: 1931
Type of mystery: Murder, whydunnit
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Rural France, 1930’s
Some themes: False identity, alcoholism, hidden pasts

Everything from this point on may be considered a spoiler if you prefer not to have any hint about the solution of the mystery. If you don’t mind knowing whodunnit, then read on.

The body of a well-dressed woman is found in a stable by an inn that serves the crews of boats passing through a nearby canal lock. She was the wife of a retired British officer (the Milord of the title) who travels along the canals of France in his yacht, leading a drunken, dissolute life. Maigret is surprised when none of the people aboard the yacht show much emotion at the woman’s death, and he has four suspects to choose from. But the woman had not been aboard the yacht for a couple of days before she died, and horse hair in her hair and resin on her dress suggest she was aboard a horse-drawn barge before she died. The only such barge near the lock the night she died is the Providence, which yields three more suspects. When another member of the yacht’s crew is murdered, Maigret decides to follow his instincts and go after his most likely suspect, with surprising results.

First the title. The story is not really a whodunnit if you understand French (or have a dictionary you are not afraid to use), as the original title is a definite clue to the identity of the killer. I would rather call it a whydunnit. However, the English title has clearly been chosen to bring in a whodunnit element, which adds something that is missing from the French edition. A good example of how a translation can add something to the original.

The descriptions of weather and landscapes are very atmospheric and you really feel the wet when reading about Maigret’s bicycle rides through the rain and his poking around in damp corners.

I am not sure whether Simenon is playing with the idea of the English stiff upper lip in his portrayal of the Englishman, or if the character would have been just as apparently emotionless belonging to any other nationality, but from clues in another of his books I am tempted to think the Milord is a proper French stereotype of an English gentleman. He is lifted above the stereotype by having Maigret notice cracks in his impeccable demeanour.

Maigret himself is a bit of a mystery here. His fondness for his pipe and his patience and painstaking exactness are his most noticeable traits here, but since he develops a more distinctive character in the second book I read, I will put it down to the typical drawn-out characterisation used by many series authors.

I have already mentioned my annoyance at authors who can not bring themselves to allow their murderers to be executed. Well, here is another one, although I must say if Simenon felt any sympathy for his killer, he certainly gave him a death much more painful than the guillotine (terrifying but quick), as his demise is both drawn-out and painful. I guess he wanted the guy to pay for his crimes, but not suffer the ignominy of a trial and execution.

A note on the translation: The translation is good, but occasionally the wording is a bit stiff. As I have already read Simenon translations by three other translators, none of which had this stiffness, I am putting the blame on the translator and not the author. However, he does solve a couple of translation problems quite well.

Rating: An atmospheric and somewhat over-melodramatic whydunnit. 3 stars.

Title:A Man’s Head. Also published as A Battle of Nerves, The Patience of Maigret and Maigret's War of Nerves
Original French title: La Tête d’um homme.
Translator: Geoffrey Sainsbury
Series detective: Inspector Maigret
No. in series: 5 (see note on order in the previous review)
Year of publication: 1931
Type of mystery: Murder, howdunnit, whydunnit
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Paris, France, 1930’s
Some themes: False conviction, blackmail, suicide


Maigret puts his career on the line when he arranges the escape of a death row prisoner he believes is innocent of the double murder he was convicted of. The man is kept under surveillance by the police in the hope that Maigret is right in believing he knows the real murderer and is covering up for him for some reason. The killer actually introduces himself to Maigret and taunts him, saying that the clues in the case were faked and that he will never understand the motives and never catch the killer. This makes Maigret curious, and he starts investigating the man, trying to connect him with the man who was convicted of the murders, the victims and the heir of one of the victims, but to no avail. The killer, who is a cold, clever man but obviously somewhat self-destructive, continues to taunt Maigret who keeps his cool, but is secretly affected by the man’s references to the blandness of his career and domestic life. However, he does not allow his concentration to waver and begins a psychological war with the man.

This is not a whodunnit, but both a whydunnit and howdunnit, although I did have the nagging suspicion through much of the story that the taunter would turn out to be someone who was unconnected with the case except as an observer and was simply enjoying leading the police investigation astray. But Simenon played fair with the reader, or as fair as you can in as story where the crime is not really solved by detective work (although that plays a part). As far as I could see, all Maigret had was circumstantial evidence, no physical evidence at all (except against the innocent man who was convicted), and had the villain won the war of nerves, he would have walked out of court a free man.

Here Maigret’s personality has taken on a definite shape. We get to know a bit about what he looks like and his personality is well-defined. So is that of his antagonist, a ruthless man who has not been able to use his great intelligence for anything useful due to circumstances of birth and lack of money, and has turned sociopathic. It would have been easy to draw him as a sympathetic character, except Simenon is careful to show that he is not only ruthless but a cruel control freak with a God complex who enjoys humiliating others. Maigret shows a similar ruthlessness when it comes to saving his job and solving the case, but is never cruel, only slightly inconsiderate to other people’s feelings and comfort. You almost get the feeling that Simenon is trying to show you what Maigret might have become had he been born with the villain’s disadvantages in life (poor, fatherless) instead of being the product of a firmly middle-class background. Indeed, Maigret’s social background is one of the things the villain taunts him with, and the one thing that gets to him.

The war of nerves is funny at times, at other times tense, and the suspense builds up slowly until it reaches the climax. The denouement is almost anticlimactic, but only almost.

Rating: An interesting psychological crime thriller. 4 stars.


Anonymous said…
I read the recipes from Iceland. I was wondering if you have recipes for the hot dog toppings for a hot dog with the works? We visited there last June and loved them, but couldn't figure out how to make them ourselves!?

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