And he hooks you before you know it. In "Maigret Hesitates", things are routine for the inspectors in the Police Judiciaire in Paris until an anonymous letter arrives warning that a murder is about to take place. Every year Maigret receives hundreds of anonymous letters, almost all on cheap paper, and he thinks this is just another, from a madman or madwoman.

But he observes that the envelope is of good quality and inside it the single sheet of paper is a beautiful thick vellum that appears to have been cut to remove an engraved letterhead. Perhaps it is not from a crazy, then. This is what the letter says, in indistinguishable block letters: "Detective Chief Inspector, I do not know you personally but what I have read about your investigations and your attitude towards criminals inspires trust. This letter may surprise you, but please do not throw it in the wastepaper basket too quickly. It is neither a joke nor the work of a maniac."

"You know better than I do that reality is sometimes far-fetched. A murder will be committed soon, probably in a few days. Perhaps by someone I know, perhaps by myself."

"I am not writing to you to prevent the tragedy occurring. In a way, it is inevitable. But when it does take place, I would like you to know."

"If you take me seriously, please place the following small ad in Le Figaro or Le Monde: 'K.R. Expect a second letter.'"

"I do not know if I will write it. I am very confused. Some decisions are hard to make."

"I may see you one day, in your office, but by then we will be on different sides of the barrier."

"Your devoted servant."

The game is afoot, as another famous fictional detective liked to say. What self-respecting detective could resist such a challenge? Who might die, who might do the killing and when might the killing occur?

Thanks to the watermark on this exclusive piece of paper, Inspector Lapointe quickly tracks down the manufacturer, then the stationery shop and finally the purchaser: Émile Parendon, an eminent lawyer specialising in international law, particularly maritime law. Parendon lives on Avenue Marigny right by the official residence of the President of the French Republic, the Élysée Palace, in an apartment building "vast and solid, built to defy the centuries".

Parendon turns out to be short and frail and oddly light, a runt, a gnome, a man lacking weight and substance. He has a young woman secretary, Mademoiselle Vague, whose sexual favours he enjoys, though they only do it in her office when they get a chance. The elegant Madame Parendon saw them at it one day, and the shock has seen her withdraw from their bedroom.

Who else might have sent Maigret the letter? Was it the Parendons' son Gus, 15, who attends the Lycée Racine and plays music on his hi-fi and and experiments on electronics in his room with a boy whose father owns a patisserie? Or his sister Bambi who is studying archaeology.

There is the ex-legionnaire, Ferdinand, who has become a butler, and the cook and cleaner who hate each other because of working hours and wages. There is a maid named Lise and two men who work for Parendon: René Tortu, who also slept once with Mademoiselle Vague, and Julien Baud, a Swiss, taking his first steps in Paris as a pen-pusher while dreaming of a life in the theatre. Baud hasn't slept with the good secretary, Mademoiselle Vague.

Maigret goes to prowl around the so-far-crime-free apartment. Another letter then arrives, different in tone: "You were wrong, Monsieur Maigret, to come before you received my second letter. It has got them all stirred up, and that may well bring things forward. The murder may be committed any time now, and it will be partly your fault."

"I thought you were more patient, more cautious. Do you really imagine you can discover the secrets of a household in one afternoon?"

"You are more credulous and perhaps more vain than I thought. I cannot help you any longer. All I advise is that you continue your inquiries without giving credence to what anybody tells you."

"I wish you all the best. In spite of everything, I still admire you."

Next, a phone call from a nameless caller to the Police Judiciaire switchboard: "Tell Inspector Maigret to hurry up." For two days, the affair has led Maigret to neglect his office, "spending most of his time in an apartment where people led a life that was no concern of his". He hasn't even dared mention the letters at the daily briefing at headquarters in the Quai des Orfevres.

And then it happens. A throat is cut, and of all the people in the household it is the last person Maigret would have thought of as the victim.

Simenon has built it up nicely. Now he wraps it up just as smartly, in his customary 170 or so pages. On form, he's a skillful devil. This one is a good balancing act, with the murder coming late in the proceedings. And admittedly, Maigret did need a surprise witness to crack the case. Lucky, that.

The Detective Chief Inspector leaves the corpse to the forensic boys. The guilty party is driven away through the reporters and photographers. Maigret, smoking his pipe, heads home to the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, where Madame Maigret will have something on the stove. He'll probably call in at a bistro to down a couple of quick ones first. The man has a healthy thirst.

It is only early March but on the streets of Paris the stirrings of spring can be felt. "True, the sun was still a little acidic, but there was a gaiety in the air and in the eyes of people in the streets, a kind of complicity, a joy in living and in rediscovering the delicious smell of Paris in the morning."

"Maigret Hesitates" is number 67 of the 75 "Maigret" books Belgian author Georges Simenon wrote between 1931 and 1972. It was first published in 1968 as "Maigret hésite". Penguin Books is rereleasing them all one a month in chronological order and with new translations.

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