Thursday, December 06, 2018

Review: A Maigret Christmas and other stories by Georges Simenon tr. David Coward

Today's review is courtesy of CrimeTime's Bob Cornwell. Read more of his reviews on Euro Crime.

A Maigret Christmas is being serialised on Radio 4's Book at Bedtime, starting on 24 December.

A Maigret Christmas and other stories by Georges Simenon tr. David Coward, 217 pages, October 2018, Penguin Classics, ISBN: 0241356741

These three first-class Simenon short stories first saw light of day in France in 1951 as a collection titled Un Noël de Maigret. They now return to the Penguin catalogue, newly and ably translated by David Coward, as a Penguin Classic. Then as now, they make an attractive package both for the long-term or intermittent Simenon reader, but also perhaps as a Christmas present for the younger crime reader unfamiliar with his work.

The title story offers an intimate glimpse of the home life of Madame and Monsieur Maigret (not altogether complimentary to the latter) as the former devotedly slips out early on Christmas morning to fetch warm croissants from the local baker for her restless husband. Thereafter the action gradually heats up as two ladies from across the street in Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, one somewhat reluctant, come looking for some advice from their famous neighbour. For whilst delivering some small Christmas gifts that morning to a young girl taken in after her mother’s death by one of the women, they discover her already in possession of an expensive doll – and that Father Christmas has delivered it in person. Astutely, Madame Maigret realises that her husband is unlikely to walk away from such a mystery, however seemingly trivial. “Happy now?” she whispers softly…

In the second tale, Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook, childhood winters and a black pudding of mysterious provenance are the topics of conversation as the night shift telephone operators at the Quai des Orfèvres (Maigret’s HQ in Paris) cope with a busy Christmas Eve. But this not a Maigret story (though Janvier, a young associate of Maigret, makes a little more than peripheral contribution). Instead the focus is on Lecoeur, a twelve-year veteran of the shift, who not only records each incident as it is reported, but also out of idle curiosity the location and the type of crime. So far this evening he has noted three potential suicides, “almost” two hundred of the nastier drunken episodes, 48 stolen vehicles, five stabbings (Paris, 1950 or thereabouts!), a few lost children. There is also a murderer at large. Then Lecoeur, using his intimate knowledge of Parisian geography, spots something deliberate in the pattern he has recorded of seven attacks that have been made on the red emergency phones that line the streets of Paris…

Both these stories evolve into complex investigations. In the first Maigret is soon directing his team of Lucas and Torrence, on Christmas duty in the Quai des Orfèvres, to find the crucial evidence to support his evolving theories. Seven Crosses is even more remarkable. It is also a team effort but it is no less an intimate portrait of Lecoeur, a man fully conscious that, however vital his contribution today “tomorrow he would be just a very ordinary telephone operator sitting at his switchboard”. Simenon’s respect for his humble origins and uncomplaining dedication to his job seeps from every paragraph.

Finally, in another milieu close to Simenon’s heart….just as The Little Restaurant near Place des Ternes (“A Christmas Story for Grown-Ups”) is closing after a low-key Christmas Eve, a tragic event occurs. Two female witnesses are questioned: a pretty young woman, “badly made up”, and the somewhat older Jeanne, known to the police as Long Tall Jeanne. Jeanne casually notes from the young woman’s overheard testimony that she comes from the same coastal area as herself, but decides to leave for ‘home’. The night’s events however have left her troubled, so instead she heads for the bright lights of Place des Ternes, with unexpected consequences. A much shorter tale than its two predecessors, it is another beautifully observed, unsentimental tale that nevertheless warms the heart.

All three stories are packed with background detail, culled from a lifetime of close observation (Lecoeur’s Paris is “a Paris apart…not the Eiffel Tower, the Opera and the Louvre, but dark administrative buildings with a police van parked underneath a blue lamp, and leaning against its wall, the bicycles of the cycle-mounted police patrols” – and a great deal more besides.

Simenon’s “characters grow in this thick soil of sensuous experience…they take colour and conviction from their surroundings”. Thus wrote Julian Symons, crack crime writer and critic in an essay on Simenon in Bloody Murder, his classic study of crime fiction back in 1972. All the more remarkable then that in 1945 Simenon had moved to America and would not return permanently to Europe, apart from two short trips in 1952 and 1954, until 1955. Place du Ternes was written in Tucson, Arizona in 1947, and the other two in Carmel, California in 1950.

Great stuff, I think. One for the collection.

Bob Cornwell
December 2018

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