Why Simenon Is Slightly Out of My Comfort Zone

I am not a big mystery fan. I read two or three mysteries a year.

The French writer Simenon has never been one of my favorites.

Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey and Glyn Houston as Bunter

Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey and Glyn Houston as Bunter

Ten years ago I went through a phase of reading British Golden Age Detective Novels, the “cozy” puzzle mysteries of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.  Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Agatha Christie are among the most famous Golden Age writers. Their upper-class detective heroes are witty and charming, they pursue baffling clues, they’re either in love with women who don’t love them back or are comfortably married, and their valets are former “batmen” from the War.

The women writers are my favorites, and perhaps it’s because they introduce a tad of romance in their novels.  Dorothy Sayers’ witty hero Lord Peter Wimsey relentlessly, through three novels, pursues the chilly (and possibly gay?) Harriet Vane, a mystery writer once accused of murder who seems positively to dislike him until she sees his effect on women academics at her former college at Oxford (Gaudy Night).  Allingham’s Albert Campion, if I recall correctly, had a great love and was rejected. Of the Golden Age heroes, Marsh’s dashing Roderick Alleyn is certainly my favorite.  Roderick smoulders for his sexy girlfriend (then wife), Agatha Troy, a painter.  As for Christie, my least favorite of the Golden Age Crime Queens, her characters are stick figures.  Christie is all about the puzzle.

Anyway, I love a good “cozy” i.e., non-violent mystery, about English detectives.

Carter of La Providence SimenonBut I have recently ventured out of my comfort zone to read Georges Simenon, the great French mystery writer.  Penguin is reissuing all of his Maigret titles, one a month.

Simenon’s books are, by my standards, police procedurals rather than cozies.  Nor have I ever been able to cozy up to Simenon’s detective, Maigret.  Simenon chooses to provide minimal background on him.

Anyway, I was delighted today to find myself completely absorbed in Simenon’s The Carter of La Providence, one of the earliest books in the series; I read it in one sitting.  But the character, Maigret, is hardly developed at all; in fact, we learn about him mainly from his reactions to the crime.

The novel begins with a description of a canal and the locks. I prefer train schedules to lockkeeping, but  gradually became interested in the characters on the barges and yachts, the carters and their horses, and Maigret.

The writing is very simple and fast, and the third-person narrative keeps us slightly distanced from Maigret.

Maigret was in a tetchy mood.  He entered the stable and from there went to the cafe or the shop any number of times.

He was seen walking as far as the stone bridge looking as though he was counting the steps or looking for something in the mud.  Grimly, dripping with water, he watched as ten vessels were raised or lowered.

People wondered what he had in mind.  The answer was: nothing.  He didn’t even try to find what might be called clues, but rather to absorb the atmosphere, to capture the essence of canal life, which was so different from the world he knew.

A woman has been strangled, and her body found in the stable of an inn by the canal.  All the clues come from Maigret’s investigation, in which he learns about the community on the canal.

The woman turns out to have been the wife of Sir Walter, a colonel and the owner of a yacht whose party consists of some glamorous, decadent people with a reputation for wife-swapping and drinking.

Did the colonel do it?  Did his friend, Marco?  Or did someone on the barge, the Providence?

There will be more corpses before the end.

It is fascinating that we know almost nothing about Maigret.  He is completely intent on the mystery, but who is he? I know from reading a few of the later books that eventually he gets married–one of the novels is about his wife–but there is nothing about that here.

Should I have started with the first book?  I never read mysteries in order.  I read what I have, or what I found at Barnes and Noble.

Julian Barnes in this week’s TLS writes that Simenon’s mysteries are literary classics, and who am I to disagree with him?

I enjoyed David Coward’s translation very much but, alas, there is a relative pronoun error on the first page.   “He had gone back into his house but had not been there long when the man driving the horse-drawn boat, who he knew, walked in.”

That should be “whom he knew,” because the relative pronoun is the direct object of “knew.”

Yes, it’s petty of me, isn’t it?  But, honestly, shouldn’t the editor know the difference between who and whom?

Get it right next time, Penguin editors, please.  I’m going to read more of these.