Either that or Simenon suffered a severe case of senility, boredom or loss of creativity when he penned "Maigret" numbers 72, 73, 74 and 75, something that we will discover when we read these reissues as they arrive one a month in October, November and December 2019 and January 2020. "Maigret and the Wine Merchant" is the September 2019 reissue and it was first published as "Maigret et le marchand de vin" in 1970 when Simenon was 67 years old. The final one, "Maigret and Monsieur Charles", arrived in 1972 when the Belgian author was 69 or 70, and he lived another 17 years until 1989.

Whether "Maigret" readers think that book 71 is lacking somewhat might depend on where they are approaching it from. If you've read all the preceding 70, or at least a good proportion of them, as we have, the formula could be starting to get a bit thin. But if you're coming to "Maigret" fairly fresh (inspired by Rowan Atkinson's acting efforts, perhaps?), then, as stated, there is really nothing to worry about with "Maigret and the Wine Merchant". And don't forget there are also a considerable number of keen people who think that 75 books simply aren't enough.

Book 71 does indeed hold few surprises at first. Simenon likes his seasons, and this is December with a "chill wind sprinkling tiny snowflakes on the cobblestones like dust". The faithful Madame Maigret gets an early mention, for when her husband Jules leaves the Police Judiciaire at the Quai des Orfevres in Paris he winds around his neck the navy blue wool scarf that she knitted. Maigret is coming down with his annual case of wintertime flu, and struggling to solve crime.

Not unusually for Maigret, and Simenon, the call-out into the cold city has come because of a corpse. A man has been shot dead in Rue Fortuny, 200 metres from the Parc Monceau, and he turns out to be quite an important person, Oscar Chabut, a big wine wholesaler. What's more, he has been killed leaving a brothel, another trademark of Simenon's Paris where it sometimes seems that every other building and every other woman on the street is a place or person of "ill repute", as they say.

So far, so familiar, then, but Simenon has barely started and there is plenty of intrigue and a good twist to come. The Simenon mind was still ticking over nicely in his late 60s. Blood has been spilled but this is not really any ordinary murder. It is the slaying of someone who almost deserved murdering, and this unusual scenario will give plenty of opportunity, as in several of the earlier books, for us to see the Detective Chief Superintendent sympathising more with the killer than the victim.

Chabut had been leaving a rendezvous with one of his mistresses, his secretary, the pair having had their regular Wednesday tryst in a well-known and "respectable" house of assignation utilised by the cream of the Parisian "in-group". He seems to have slept with the wife of many within this group, as well as most of his young female employees.

As if that were not enough to attract enemies, he was a ruthless businessman who dealt harshly with his competitors and employees alike. At first, Maigret is surprised by the lack of grief shown by the man's wife and closest relatives, his colleagues and conquests, but the Detective Chief Inspector soon discovers that Chabut was an ogre, a truly despicable character with many enemies: "The dead man's secretary had shed no tears when told of his death. Neither did his wife. She merely looked downcast and rather sorrowful."

Chabut was a very successful man who started from nothing and made himself proprietor of one of the most successful wine businesses in France. But it gave him a chip on his shoulder, a need to humiliate and dominate every man and woman he dealt with. To say he wasn't a well-liked man is an understatement.

In short, Maigret is spoiled for choice as to who would have wanted to do away with the vile victim. Oscar Chabut " ... had done everything possible to get himself disliked, if not hated ...". The wine merchant was a serial womaniser who "... went to bed with all those women only in order to show them that he was master and, to some extent, to defile them".

By the by, it's difficult to read Simenon's characterisation of Chabut without wondering how much of himself the author put into it. Simenon too was a serious womaniser and fantasist who smelt sex all around him. He indulged freely, enjoying considerable success as a seducer but also forcing himself on women according to some accounts, and topping up his daily ration with visits to the bordellos.

Still, Maigret is bound to uphold the law and bring the killer to justice even if he himself comes to feel that Chabut deserved it. There are few clues and no great Holmesian feats of deduction. Not much happens in the way of action; this is more an examination of types of people, their motives, actions and reactions. What are their resources, their backgrounds, their intelligence, education, financial standing, state of marriage? What kind of a person commits a murder? What drives a person to such an action? Why are certain people seducers and philanderers? Or lazy or unkind or timid?

Maigret basically stumbles across the solution almost by chance. Simenon has used the device of anonymous letters and phone calls before. Likewise, Maigret's understanding that eventually the murderer will give himself up isn't a first either. In the end he must send to jail a man with whom he can't help but sympathise.

Nonetheless, it is all written and worked out in a way that is satisfying to the reader. Simenon still manages to find a novel approach and this is every bit as good as the books that have gone before. On to number 72!

"Maigret and the Wine Merchant" was first published as "Maigret et le marchand de vin" in 1970. Penguin Books has been reissuing the 75 "Maigret" novels since 2013, one a month chronologically in new translations from the French. Still to come –
"Maigret's Madwoman" in October 2019
"Maigret and the Loner" in November 2019
"Maigret and the Informer" in December 2019
"Maigret et Monsieur Charles" in January 2020

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