And, in another comment, "Was [fellow Police Judiciaire detective] Lapointe surprised to see Maigret attach so much importance to this story of a tramp? In the newspapers, it would be a minor item of just a few lines at most." However, what Lapointe doesn’t know, because he is too young, is that this is the first time in Maigret’s long career that a crime has been committed against a tramp. It piques the veteran detective’s interest, and, what’s more, the case presents a number of uncertainties, not least of which is who might have an interest in murdering such a seemingly inconsequential person?

What happened is that the victim was badly beaten and thrown in the River Seine to die. But the tramp was rescued by the owner of a Belgian barge moored nearby. Past midnight, the bargee said he heard the noise of a car engine, as if someone was going to park not far away. Minutes later he heard a splash, like someone had fallen into the river.

Going to look, he saw two men running to a car, a red Peugeot 403 with Paris licence plates. He didn’t have the chance to see the whole number but he recalled it had a couple of nines. Then he heard someone yelling from the water. With the help of the skipper of another boat, they located the now-unconscious body in the dark and fished it out.

The tramp, who it transpires is known to his fellow tramps as "The Doc", was taken to Hôtel-Dieu hospital in a coma, and medical opinion is that he might remain in that state for some time. His skull had been fractured by a violent blow with a heavy instrument. According to the hospital doctor, Professor Magnin, he has a seventy per cent chance of pulling through. But Magnin too seems to be wondering why Maigret is taking so much trouble over a trivial case involving a tramp.

The professor thinks the tramp’s survival has been miraculous. Thus, the general belief around the case that, "In short, it was a crime without a victim, almost without a perpetrator, and nobody really cared about Doc, apart from Fat Léa and, perhaps, two or three other tramps."

The mystery deepens when Doc’s ID card shows he is in fact Francois Keller, a former doctor in Mulhouse, France, who abandoned his family more than 20 years ago to work in Gabon, Africa. Coincidentally, Maigret’s wife’s sister lives in Mulhouse, and with the sisters’ help, Maigret soon gets to know Doc’s history. After some time in Africa he returned disillusioned to Paris to live rough, sleeping under the bridges of the Seine.

As mentioned, it is the first doctor in 30 years whom Maigret has encountered living such a lifestyle, although, as Simenon notes in typically rather fanciful fashion, he had once come across a former chemistry teacher from a provincial high school doing so, and, a few years later, a woman who had had her hour of fame as a bareback rider in a circus (!).

So, in short, an absorbed Maigret is devoting as much of his time to the case as he would to a drama keeping the whole of France agog. As is his way, he digs away single-mindedly until he begins to understand the man, and how a person like him could become a tramp. As Simenon reminds us, for we have heard similar many times before throughout the series: "Maigret rarely talked to his wife about a case while it was in progress. In fact, most of the time he didn’t even discuss it with his closest colleagues, content merely to give his instructions. It was all part of the way he worked, to gradually immerse himself in the lives of people he hadn’t known the day before."

Simenon and his most famous creation shared this fixation with the lives of strangers. When the taciturn Inspector Maigret took on a case, he was not so much solving a murder as solving the people involved. Once he understood the motivations and impulses of the suspects, the solution to the crime became clear.

As it does here, and, as in any decent police yarn, with surprises and false trails along the way. Again, Simenon proves to be a very effective storyteller without testing credibility too far, as he could be prone to doing. The knowing reader must stay alert – was that a throwaway fact that Simenon just slipped in, or will it turn out to be crucial to the dénouement?

"Maigret and the Tramp" was first published in French as "Maigret et le Clochard" in 1963. It has been published in previous English translations as "Maigret and the Dosser" and "Maigret and the Bum". This latest edition has a new translation and is the 60th of the ongoing one-a-month chronological reissue of all 75 "Maigrets" by Penguin Books.


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