This is my second Simenon novel (the first being Maigret and the Lazy Burglar, which I read last year). I picked it up from a sale in my local library (cost: 10p), and as it’s the original 1965 English translation, it has lovely, heavy, slightly yellowed pages. I spent half my time thinking I’d turned over two at once, and pawing at the pages like a cat with a mouse. Luckily, it’s a short book or I’d still be there now.
I was encouraged to buy it by the description on the book jacket, which struck me as surprisingly modern. Here, Maigret engages the help of a psychiatrist, Professor Tissot, to track down a serial murderer, and uses what amounts to a ‘psychological profile’ to guide the investigation. Maigret and Tissot meet at the dinner-party of a mutual friend (the story suggests that the host has done this deliberately), where they discuss the case in some detail. In a nice device, Simenon refers back to this conversation through the novel to illustrate a particular point, and show the way in which Maigret’s memory of it guides his thinking.
I’d always thought profiling was a more recent innovation, but clearly not – here we have an example from close to 60 years ago. I’d be interested to know where the original inspiration came from, and whether Simenon had read of a similar experiment taking place elsewhere. Simenon wrote the book while he was living in the United States; was this where he picked up on a similar approach to a case?
The novel itself suggests it was not a commonplace, and Maigret views his approach as a gamble, using the advice from Tissot to organise an elaborate police surveillance operation. Following his decision, Maigret spends much of the rest of the book beset with doubts and uncertainties, questioning whether his approach is correct. This is reflected in climax of the novel, which also calls into question his judgement and forces the reader to question what has gone before.
Maigret is clearly a man who feels his responsibilities very keenly, and this is one aspect of his character which makes him sympathetic. There is also his determination to solve the case, regardless of the many frustrations put in his way – one of which is the heat of a Parisian summer. In French, maigre means lean, thin or scrawny, but the good Superintendent is none of these things. At one point, a colleague spies Maigret climbing out of a car; ‘he thought he looked even bulkier and heavier than normal.‘ This weight takes on a metaphorical as well as a physical aspect, with the responsibility hanging heavy from his massive shoulders.
Maigret’s size is for me symptomatic of his unmoveability, his dogged determination – characteristics that he shares with other modern detectives. Maigret is no Sherlock Holmes, able to make devastating and improbable leaps from the smallest shreds of evidence. Rather, he gathers his evidence methodically, drawing on the team around him. It is not always Maigret who follows up the leads – trusted lieutenants often take on this role – but he is at the centre, directing operations and taking overall responsibility for the investigation. In this sense, he is very much like Martin Beck, albeit with a much happier home-life.
Madame Maigret is always there with a sympathetic ear and the occasional glass of something fortifying. ‘It wasn’t that he wanted, it was beer,’ Simenon writes at one point, as Maigret knocks back a glass of sloe gin, given to him by his wife. ‘But as he emptied his glass at a gulp he had a kind of impression that he was getting his own back.‘ Maigret spends much of this novel, set during a stifling week in August, thinking about cold glasses of beer. As the temperature where I work has been equally uncomfortable over the last week, it’s no surprise that this theme struck a particular chord with me.
For those that are interested in learning more about him, there’s a great interview with Simenon in the Paris Review. It was conducted in 1955 and – if this list on Wikipedia is correct – happened just after Simenon had finished writing Maigret Sets a Trap – the 49th book in the series. I’d’ve liked to hear him say more about detective fiction, but there’s plenty here to enjoy – in particular his observation that ‘I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.‘
If, as I do, you like to hear writers talk about their work, I can’t recommend the Paris Review highly enough. Their website includes interviews going back to the early 1950s, and the scope and breadth is extraordinary. Well worth an evening’s browsing.