There, Countess Palmieri – if she is a real countess – has phoned down from suite 332 in the middle of the night to say that she has poisoned herself by taking a tube of barbiturates, but now she has changed her mind and doesn’t want to die. The hotel nurse, Madamoiselle Genévrier, rushes from the infirmary, and then Dr. Frere, who lives on Avenue Marceau, is summoned, and they stabilise the countess before she is taken by ambulance to the American Hospital in Neuilly.

Hours later, in mid-morning in suite 347 at the other end of the corridor to 332, Colonel David Ward, a billionaire, is found dead in his bath, with the marks on his shoulders indicating that he has been held under the water. One suicide attempt, one murder. Monsieur Gilles, the manager of the prestigious hotel, is concerned that with the police on the scene, the press will soon follow, and his well-heeled guests won’t like all the hubbub.

Meanwhile, Countess Palmieri, who has had her stomach pumped and been given an injection, is left alone in her hospital room to recover, whereupon she gets up, dresses and walks out of the building without anyone thinking to stop her. Maigret learns that the countess and Ward were intimate, and had been together on the fateful night.

She had phoned the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, the most luxurious hotel on the Riviera, before disappearing. Air France and PanAm timetables are found among her papers, so Maigret deduces that this is where she has gone. On an impulse, he heads straight to Orly airport, hotfoot in pursuit ...

That’s just chapter one of Maigret Travels”, and Simenon is off and running, taking us along in his wake.

A little about Monsieur Simenon: born in Liege, Belgium, in 1903, he quit school at 15 and went to work writing for a local newspaper. He also began writing unabashed pulp novels and what he called “spicy” stories, published under pseudonyms. The first was published when he was 18.

A year later, he left Liege and settled in Paris. Colette, the literary editor at Le Matin, told him in 1923 he was on the right track with his writing but he should drop “the literature” – “Pas de littérature!” Simenon is said to have been deeply impressed by Colette, seated in her editorial armchair, but baffled by her advice. He took it to mean that he should simplify his descriptions, use as few words as possible and make every word count. So he did.

In the next seven years, he brought out more than 150 novels and novellas. Every morning he sat down and completed his self-assigned daily quota of 80 typewritten pages. By 1929-30, Simenon considered that he had finished his apprenticeship and was ready to begin writing “seriously”, and under his own name.

In 1929 he published 34 novels and three of them contained a police inspector called “Maigret”. However, the first “real Maigret”, written in the full sense, not just with the character but in the style, was “Pietr-le-Letton” in 1931. This was the year in which he produced the first novels that he was willing to sign his actual name to. They were detective stories, about a police superintendent named Jules Amedée Francois Maigret.

As The Budapest Times readers should know by now, another 74 “Maigrets” followed “Pietr-le-Letton” over the next four decades, and Penguin Books is republishing them one a month. “Maigret Travels” is number 51 in the sequence. It was originally published as “Maigret voyage” in 1957. Penguin’s reissues all have new translations from the French, and the covers are details from the archive of Magnum Photos’ Harry Gruyaert.

Acting on the advice given him, Simenon estimated that throughout his career he restricted himself to a vocabulary of about 2000 words. The last thing he wished to do to a reader was to send him or her to a dictionary (and probably ditto Simenon himself: the man wrote fast and didn’t like to be interrupted; looking up words, for instance). Interestingly, in “Maigret Travels” we find just the one unusual word, “gen”, which, as most readers surely know, means “information”.

Further, Simenon kept his books short, believing that they should be read in a session, like a play: And it helped if the reader enjoyed the novel but was left feeling unsatisfied and wanted more: another Simenon novel. “Maigret Travels” clocks in at 169 pages, which is average.

So, Maigret follows his quarry to Monte Carlo and then on to Switzerland. He was in such a hurry to leave Paris that he hasn’t taken any luggage or passport, but the speedy Simenon isn’t too worried about such details and can write around them.

This is not just a simple crime novel but has a sub-text of the stolid and grounded chief inspector entering the unfamiliar world of the super-rich. Maigret is out of his milieu (one French word that doesn’t need to be translated to English). One of these superior creatures appears somewhat impatient with Maigret and regards him as far too ignorant because he is unable to recognise “important people” in photographs.

The whole affair doesn’t put Maigret in a good mood. He is irritated by all these people whose customs are so different from those of ordinary mortals. He starts to realise that he is ill prepared to understand them and that it would take months to become fully conversant with their affairs.

“Faced with them, he was in the position of a newcomer in a club, for example, or a new pupil in a class who feels awkward and embarrassed because he doesn’t yet know the rules, the customs, the catchphrases, and assumed that the others are laughing at him.”

Maigret hates these cases involving well-known people, cases that need to be handled with kid gloves. Nonetheless, the dogged detective isn’t going to let a billionaire or two get in his way, and despite having to travel on to Geneva and Lausanne in Switzerland, he’s actually only away from Paris for one night – minus pajamas and a change of clothing. As we know, Maigret almost always gets his man – or countess, perhaps.

PS. Your Budapest Times correspondent spent two nights in the rarefied George V in 2013, without going bankrupt. One of the world’s legendary hotels that has hosted the Extremely Famous, we had noted it as The Beatles’ choice in 1964 and we burbled excitedly when, after our visit, we saw a Jack Nicholson film and realised that was where he was staying. Imagine how much greater our joy would have been if we had realised during our stay that the resolute Chief Inspector Maigret had also once stalked its corridors.


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Georges Simenon
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