"Maigret at the Coroner's", published in 1949, wasn't simply a case of the author again looking to freshen up his plots somewhat by taking Maigret out of his Parisienne milieu – soon after the Second World War, Simenon had deemed it wise to move out of France, where his role during the Nazi occupation was under question.

Simenon was born in Liege, Belgium, in 1903 and moved to Paris when he was 18 years old. He spent the greater part of his life in France but also lived in later years in the United States and Switzerland. As the Second World War began, he was on the way to worldwide fame. His behaviour during the war has stirred considerable controversy, with some scholars viewing him as a collaborator with the Germans while others see him as apolitical and essentially an opportunist but certainly not a sympathiser.

The Nazis set up a film production company in Paris called International, with which some French writers and directors did collaborate. International made films from at least two of Simenon's books, "Cécile este Morte" (Cécile is Dead) and "Picpus", with Albert Préjean playing Maigret. The result was that Simenon came under investigation when the war ended in 1945.

He evaded questioning in France by leaving that year for North America, spending several months in Quebec, Canada, early on and then travelling around the US. The author, 44 years old, arrived in Tucson on August 31, 1947, in a brand-new Buick convertible, with 8-year-old son Marc and Canadian woman Denyse Ouimet, 26, his secretary and openly acknowledged mistress. Somewhere back east in the US, waiting to hear where Simenon would next settle down for a few weeks or months, was his wife of more than 20 years, Régine Renchon Simenon, whom everyone called Tigy. Denyse had taken Tigy's place in Simenon's bed but still Tigy was part of the author's complicated domestic arrangements, at least for the moment.

By 1948, the Purge Committee of the French liberation, which dealt with arts and literature, finally got around to examining Simenon's actions under the Nazis. Safe in the US, he heard that the committee was proposing to impose a two-year ban on the sale of any of his novels or screen adaptations. Films on release would have to be withdrawn. This would have had a major effect on his international reputation and his finances, and he was urged to return to Paris to defend himself.

Simenon wrote to the committee and claimed he was not aware until too late that International was a Nazi-run company. It was hardly a strong defence, as biographers have pointed out that he would have been well aware of whom he was dealing with, since he negotiated all his own contracts and would have known of the crude anti-Semitic programmes that accompanied the films. He also sold the rights to Radio-Paris, an instrument of Gestapo propaganda.

Simenon further asserted that it was impossible for him to return to Paris at this point because his son Johnny was about to be born. He also felt that he could not miss a gala opening at Radio City in New York of "The Man on the Eiffel Tower", with British actor Charles Laughton as Maigret. Eventually, after the intercession of friends, the committee did not impose the ban.

Simenon spent a decade in North America, returning to France with his family in 1955. Born out of this troubled period, "Maigret at the Coroner's" is an oddity in the canon. Two years previously Maigret had entertained a colleague from Scotland Yard, Pyke, who was in Paris to study his methods, and now it was Maigret's turn to undertake a tour trip of the United States to learn about American methods.

When the novel opens, Maigret had already been escorted round New York and 10 or 11 other states, and had acquired honorary deputy sheriff badges in eight or nine counties in New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North or South Carolina (he can't remember which), Texas and New Orleans.

In Arizona, before going on to California, he was being chaperoned by an FBI officer, Agent Harry Cole, who had parked him at an inquest into the death of a promiscuous young woman, Bessie, in the desert at night. As a simple observer, Maigret had no part to play in the proceedings, which largely involved five soldiers from a nearby military base.

They had been entertaining her in a Tucson bar and when it closed they decided to take her over the border into the Mexican side of Nogales, where they would be able to drink until the early hours. They never managed to reach there and somehow the woman was hit by a train, though whether she was dead or not before this accident was the subject of the inquest.

Parts of the story are complicated, so much so that this reader had some difficulty in following everyone's movements by the highway and train line out in the desert. Simenon seems to have acknowledged this because he took the unusual step in his books of including a handful of drawings to clarify the text.

It was all very frustrating for Maigret, who as an observer was forced to hold his tongue when he felt that essential questions were going unasked. And then as the inquest neared its conclusion he was rushed off to Los Angeles before the jury returned its decision. Not only the Detective Chief Inspector but also his loyal followers – we readers, after 174 pages – were left up in the desert air. Was it an accident or was Bessie murdered?

Basically, though, there is no real action to be found in this novel, certainly not around the court building. All the events took place before the book begins and are recounted mostly before the coroner, or via discussion in a bar.

Still, we do get the benefit of Maigret's ruminations on the difference between American and French society, though these have become dated. He concludes, for instance, that while poverty does exist in the United States, "It is ‘poverty with bathrooms.' Nobody is in rags or unwashed, there are no beggars and people are in general strong, well-fed and healthy".

On the other hand, while from the point of view of physical comfort American life seems better, there is – perhaps paradoxically – a large amount of crime and little sense of community. Everybody seems to drink far too much, not openly, as on a café terrace in France, but almost furtively, shut away from the eyes of others, "as if satisfying some shameful need".

Maigret was rather at sea in among the drive-ins, car hops and hot dogs, and was looking forward to getting home to Madame Maigret. We'll be happy to see him back on familiar terrain too.


Penguin Books is publishing the entire series of 75 Maigret novels one a month in chronological order in new translations from the French. This one, first published as "Maigret chez le coroner" in 1949, is the 32nd.


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