“Maigret’s Revolver” and “Maigret and the Headless Corpse” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)
Author’s idiosyncrasies in a book a day
These two were originally “Le Revolver de Maigret” from 1952 and “Maigret et le corps sans tête” from 1955, in French. We read them both during the 2013-2020 bonanza, and perhaps had done so even earlier since discovering Simenon in the 1960s or 1970s (tempus fugit). But the Crime & Espionage releases offer the excuse to have another go, and in particular to test out a few popular “Simenonisms”, if we can call them that.
Simenonism number one, let’s say, is the “read-it-in-a-day” theory, which was the Belgian author’s practice of keeping his several hundred books short so that each could be devoured in one sitting, rather like going to the theatre, he believed.
Well, “Maigret’s Revolver” and “Maigret and the Headless Corpse” are both just about exactly the same length, on the 180-page mark, so we were able to follow the Simenon dictum successfully for the former, albeit to the detriment of washing up, hoovering, shopping, mowing the lawn, feeding the cats and other mundane chores that had to be put off to another day or left to the wife. Still, mission accomplished.
Second, Simenon was acknowledged as a master of setting his atmosphere with a few brush strokes, and the seasons are important. In “Maigret’s Revolver” it was “a June day, and under the warm sunshine Paris was already smelling of summer”. Hence “the windows were open; life was going on at a leisurely pace on the boulevard, the air was golden and the light gradually faded into a rosy glow”.
When we read that “From the corner of a nearby street came the strains of an accordion”, it could go down as a French cliché if written by an English writer, but the Belgian-born Simenon lived in Paris from his early 20s and so we accept it as a straight observation. Besides, this is 1952 and probably there were more accordions then than now (and berets, striped tops, bicycles, Citroëns, frogs legs, escargot and baguettes?).
Something else that was different in those “less complicated” days, namely the easy public access to Detective Chief Inspector Jules Maigret of the Police Judiciaire, a man who heads the Crime Squad and handles murder after murder, as he does here, but whose office is also accessible to a woman reporting someone who allegedly poisoned her cat, and a priest angry about thefts from the poor box in his church. Maigret usually gives them a hearing, as patiently and politely as he can.
Strangest of all, perhaps, is that when a young man obtains the inspector’s home address in the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir and calls round, Madame Maigret lets him in to wait until her husband gets back for lunch. This is despite the stranger being nervous and not saying what he wants, except that it’s personal and he needs advice.
But he slips out when Madame Maigret is in the kitchen, taking with him the titular revolver, an unloaded Smith & Wesson .45 special that had been presented to Maigret in America by the FBI, and that was sitting on the mantlepiece. Could it happen these days?
An endless source of fascination here at The Budapest Times, and an absolute Simenonism, is the priapic penman’s obsession with women and sex (he of the “10,000” – see Google), and here Maigret encounters the little housemaid Georgette, with “full breasts” in candy-pink crepe pyjamas, and hot to trot. “When she opened the door he caught a whiff of bed and armpits” (Simenon really does love women’s armpits, especially when in the natural state, though Georgette’s inclination in this regard is, for once, not mentioned).
As she proceeds Maigret down the corridor of the apartment, “the crepe pyjamas had managed to get themselves wedged in the cleft between her buttocks”, and when they sit down, “She deliberately allowed a little more flesh to appear between the pyjama top and trousers, and provocatively crossed her legs in a certain way”.
Maigret feels awkward at having to disappoint her but he leaves, questioning complete. As he departs, “That smell of bed and underarm sweat reached him once more. One of her large breasts brushed against his sleeve with a certain insistence”. Georgette offers an open invitation to call again, using a special knock on the door. These French!
At The Budapest Times, we are convinced that part and parcel of Simenon’s “knock-them-off-quickly”, 180-page approach to writing a book, which usually took him about 10 days or so, was to enable him to get down to the local bordello as quickly as possible, a predilection that is well documented (remember the “10,000”). Of course, he may have had a handy chambermaid of his own for quick use but, whatever, a male writer needs verisimilitude for describing the female side.
What Georgette didn’t know was that Maigret is absolutely faithful to the homely Madame Maigret, even in the course of encountering loose lovelies in 75 books written over some four decades. She is the dependable cook and housekeeper, not even upset on those occasions when she has been slaving in the kitchen and Jules is sidetracked by a slaying.
Here, he arrives home later than promised after meeting a former colleague from Nice and taking him to the Brasserie Dauphine for a couple of pastis, in consequence prompting the nervous young man to walk out without saying goodbye and taking the gun with him. As usual, Maigret likes his tipple, and in “Maigret’s Revolver” he also downs some cognac (there’s a bottle in the office for those lengthy interrogations), beer and wine.
An important part of the Maigret creation is the detective’s humanity, and reference is made to cases in which he displayed a kind heart, indulgence and understanding to people in the dock. There was a time when on the last morning of a criminal sentenced to death, the condemned man refused a priest but asked as a favour to have a final conversation with Chief Inspector Maigret (presumably granted; it doesn’t say).
Simenon occasionally allows us a quick look into Maigret’s past. There’s this rarity from when the tyro was policing public transport: “The moment he had clapped his hand on the shoulder of a pickpocket coming out of the Métro, the man had started yelling ’Help! Help!’ And the crowd had then held on to Maigret until the local police arrived.”
And simple but nice Simenon descriptive touches: “They ran into cloud cover as they approached the French coast and flew up above it [Maigret is following the case, and his gun, to London]. Through a break in the clouds a little later, Maigret caught a lucky glimpse of the sea, sparkling as if covered in silvery scales, and fishing-boats trailing a wake of foam.” And: “The sky above the Strand was still a brilliant blue, verging on violet, with an occasional little white cloud floating across its surface, like a feather escaping from an eiderdown.”
He gets his Smith & Wesson back. Re-reading “Maigret and the Headless Corpse” will have to wait to another day, after catching up on the washing up, hoovering, shopping, mowing the lawn, feeding the cats and other mundane chores that the other half mismanaged.