The usually unflappable Detective Chief Inspector, whose long career has been pretty much exemplary – how many murderers and big criminals has he brought to justice? – finds his cheeks turning red at the summons, "as they had at school whenever he was called to the headmaster’s office". It is indeed calamitous news. The previous evening, imprudently but typically, he had got out of bed when a damsel in distress phoned him at home just before midnight and he had gone to her rescue.

Now, she’s accusing him of approaching her in a bar and trying to get round her by promising to let her watch him arrest someone. Taking advantage of her innocence, he supposedly gets her drunk, drags her from one bar to another, and eventually, when she is barely conscious, takes her to a hotel room and undresses her against her will. The young woman turns out to be Nicole Prieur, the niece of Monsieur Jean-Baptiste Prieur, Master of Requests at the Council of State; in other words, a man of some importance and influence.

It’s a scarcely believable story to level against a senior detective with such a rock-solid reputation. Someone is trying to disgrace Maigret, to remove him overnight from his post. "He was looking for someone who, in order to get him out of the way, or for sheer hatred of him, had put all his efforts into disgracing him, constructing a complicated plan, putting it all together meticulously, using as an instrument a young woman of good family."

Maigret obeys the summons and goes to see his superior, a prefect whom he addresses as "sir". The Detective Chief Inspector dislikes the young man, who is under 40 and a newcomer with enough diplomas to be put at the head of any department of the civil service. To Maigret, he is a disrespectful, publicity-seeking, snotty-nosed, self-satisfied boss who finds repugnant the "outdated" methods of policing employed by veterans such as the accused detective before him.

The new-broom prefect doesn’t much care for policemen of the old school and he doesn’t particularly like Maigret. He doesn’t like the police using informers. He criticises Maigret for not spending much time in his office, for dealing in person with tasks such as stakeouts that would normally be handled by his inspectors, for spending hours on end in little cafés and bars seeking information, and for turning a blind eye to misdeeds when necessary. In short, he will be happy to accept Maigret’s resignation, or more precisely his enforced retirement, if Maigret’s side of the story doesn’t hold up.

For Maigret: "It is painful, towards the end of a career like his, to see your chiefs begin to doubt you, especially a proud, fiercely ambitious young cock of the walk like the prefect."

For the first time in his life Maigret is the one under attack, the one being asked to account for his actions. For a moment, he has no fight in him, not the slightest desire to defend himself. He accepts defeat. For a long while, he even feels a certain relief. No more responsibilities. No more exhausting evenings and nights hammering away at men whose confessions would finally bring investigations to an end.

Maigret wonders which he would rather do: leave the force or carry on. For the first time he is on the wrong side of the desk. He wonders if he’ll still have the heart to go on. Needless to say, perhaps, Maigret’s detective instincts begin to come to the fore. Who might want to see him out of circulation badly enough to set up something like this? Maigret must be making someone very uncomfortable, someone who he’s about to catch red-handed or who imagines he is. "It has to be someone very intelligent, who knows my habits and the workings of the police. Someone who feels I’m after him and thinks that by getting me out of the way he’ll be left alone."

Maigret resolves to get to the bottom of the affair. He does all the things the prefect has told him not to. No sooner has the prefect mentioned Maigret’s liking for informers than he rushes to see one. He questions another man about Nicole Prieur and, despite being forbidden to make the slightest mention of the case at the Police Judiciaire, he tells two trusted colleagues and sends a third to surreptitiously photograph the young woman. Finally, on a transparent pretext he is shown the list of members of a private club, including her.

All these offences in just one day! Having ventured this far, Maigret sees no reason to stop. Either he will succeed or he will fail, and as far as everyone is concerned, his career will come to a pitiful end: "Either I’m mistaken and within a week I’ll be retiring to Meung-sur-Loire, [where the Maigrets have bought a retirement home] or I’m right and I’m dealing with the most curious case in my career."

Gradually the threads of the investigation start to come together and the truth takes shape. It proves to be (spoiler alert!) an affair of rape, abortions and no fewer than three deaths. Simenon’s plot is devilishly clever, even if the premise is not entirely convincing, to place the respected Maigret in what is surely a rather unlikely predicament. Still, the mystery value is high, and the reader is likely to race through to discover the answer.

"Maigret Defends Himself" was originally released in 1964 as "Maigret se défend", Simenon being a Belgian. It was also published earlier in English not only as "Maigret Defends Himself" but also as "Maigret on the Defensive". Penguin’s one-a-month reissues, which began in 2013, are all new translations and better for it. Trust us.

The best places to buy them are Libra, Kölcsey utca 2 in District VIII and Bestsellers, Október 6 utca 11 in District V.


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