Thursday, 21 April 2011

Maigret's Pickpocket by Georges Simenon

A reviewer on goodreads.com described this book as comfort food, and noted the civilized way in which Maigret goes about solving his mystery. That makes it seem as if this is something on the lines of an Agatha Christie novel, which strikes me as a very misleading notion. However, it also illuminates a difference between Simenon's Franco-Belgian noir and the American version: there's far less violence in Simenon's Maigret novels. Maigret doesn't go around getting into brawls, ambushes and gunfights the way Marlow or the Continental Op do.

You could almost describe the set-up as a police procedural; except that Maigret's procedure is anything but. He generally approaches a case obliquely, famously drawing no conclusions and forming no theories, almost sleepwalking through routine interrogations and noting each new piece of data from the experts with an almost distracted air. He takes time out for snacks, glasses of beer or wine, little domestic interludes with his wife. His deductions only come in at the very end, once he has completely immersed himself in the mystery to the point of outward stasis. He is informed by a deep, not un-compassionate sense of human frailty and a professional policeman's knowledge of all the twisted, brutal and pathetic forms that frailty can take; it's a sensitive clinician's approach, a description which can be applied to Simenon's own in these novels as well as his non-Maigret works. In the process we are brought face-to-face with some of the darkest currents of human nature, with acts of betrayal and desperation that are more shocking for being uncovered in such a seemingly matter-of-fact way. It isn't a superior approach to that of Chandler/Hammett , but an equally effective one, and one that has more in common with their work than that of those whom I'd generally describe as writers of cozy mysteries.

This novel is no exception; it is superbly constructed, with Maigret's wallet being pick-pocketed on a bus - only to be returned intact with a note requesting him to meet the pickpocket. The fellow turns out to be a young aspiring scriptwriter who lives alone with his wife in a flat. His wife has been dead for a few days, shot in the head. The man insists he is innocent and turns to Maigret for help. What follows is a descent into a specific microcosm - the world of somewhat shifty financiers, wannabe stars and creative hacks of various kinds who exist at the peripheries of the film world, looking out for their big break. Outwardly, Maigret is having a pleasant time of it, sitting and eavesdropping on his suspects in a cozy restaurant with superb food, sharing fine beer with one suspect and so on.

But I am convinced that any reader with a little discernment will notice the darker currents running beneath this calm surface, the little side-lights into the various characters' own individual hells, the tiny acts of betrayal and desperation, calculation and surmise that make up their daily lives, and finally the revelation of the crime itself, domestic certainly, but not cozy by any means. Even more significant than Maigret's identification of the culprit is his insight in the last page - asked if the culprit should face the courts or be treated as a psychiatric case, Maigret suggests the courts - not because he is convinced of the murderer's mental soundness so much as because he knows that that is where the person in question will be able to play out the sort of role they would be most comfortable with. That's a subtle point, one that neither justifies nor condemns but merely displays the stark insight that sets the Maigret novels apart.

4 comments:

Laura Brown said...

I read and enjoyed a couple of Simenon's short stories years ago, but never got round to reading the novels. Your review makes me think I should.

JP said...

Thanks for reading; I fixed a few typos and awkward phrases after you posted your comment! No doubt there are more where they came from...

NYRB Classics reprints a number of Simenon's non-Maigret novels; Dirty Snow is a good place to start. Penguin keeps re-issuing the Maigret novels; many used bookstores should have some of them in stock.

H R Venkatesh said...

Think it's a conspiracy. Delhi stores don't stock (or at least display prominently) Simenon novels - both Maigret and non-Maigret. So my connection to them is heavily dependent on my connection to Bangalore!

JP said...

From what I hear, Delhi's bookstores are vastly inferior to Bangalore's or even Bombay's.