Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Glimpse in Words

One of my favorite detective novelists is Georges Simenon, who wrote many dozens of short, crisp novels featuring the Parisian police-inspector, Jules Maigret, an ursine man who's both methodical and intuitive, who smokes a pipe, drinks beer and liquor, and who often goes home for lunch, for which Madame Maigret has fixed him a chicken roasted with herbs and wine. There's always a believable psychological angle to the plot--usually nothing bizarre, usually something rooted in common human behavior, such as jealousy, envy, or insecurity.

I was reading one of the few translated Maigret novels I hadn't read before--Maigret Among the Rich--and encountered this description of Maigret, who's arrived on the scene of--you guessed it--a murder, but the victim is a well known French aristocrat:

"[Maigret] had to get used to the unfamiliar setting, to a house, to a way of life, to people who had their own peculiar habits, their own way of thinking and expressing themselves.
With certain categories of human beings, it was relatively easy, for instance with his more or less regular customers or with people like them.
With others he had to start from scratch every time, especially as he distrusted rules and ready-made ideas.
In this new case, he was laboring under an additional handicap. He had made contact, this morning, with a world which was not only very exclusive but which for him, on account of his childhood, was situated on a very special level."

I glimpsed just a wee bit of myself in this description--not that I imagine myself to be a detective or French. But I share the fictional Maigret's sense of nonconformity, which is nonetheless encased in apparently conforming behavior. What could be a more conformist job that policing? And yet Maigret has to get used to every new situation--because he doesn't trust "rules and ready-made ideas." He remains something of a foreigner in his native land. Among the rich, he feels especially strange because he's not rich but also because his father worked for the rich. My father didn't work for the rich, but I still feel strange among people who have substantial wealth. Like Maigret, I feel as if I should keep an eye on them to see how they go about things--what their rules and ready-made ideas are. Doing so doesn't make a lot of sense; it's not as if I'm going to live amongst them or be their friend. Nonetheless, a certain wariness seems to be called up by the situation, and I liked glimpsing a representation of that in this description of Maigret. (I also like the fact that Simenon has Maigret think of the people he usually investigates and arrests as his "customers.")

Simenon happens to be a fine novelist, not just a fine detective novelist. But as wildly popular as he is--he's in Agatha Christie's league--his books are an acquired taste. If you pick up one and "get" the comparatively low-key but tautly written approach, you'll want to devour the rest. If not, not. Unlike Christie's books, however, Simenon's move quickly. Simenon doesn't rush, but he doesn't dawdle, either.

Maigret's among my favorite fictional detectives--along with Miss Marple, Sherlock (of course), Kurt Wallander (Henning Mankell's Swedish policeman), Nero Wolfe, Poirot, and Sam Spade. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone is appealing, as is Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins. Maigret might have a slight edge over them all, in the sense that I never seem to tire of following him around his fictional Paris and other locales, including his drafty office, his cafes, and his bistros. He seems to fit in, but in fact, the world doesn't fit him so well. The world takes some getting used to, in Maigret's opinion.
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