“Maigret’s Patience” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)

Some cases take longer than others

Budapest is often called the “Paris of the east”, a tag that is supposed to flatter but is in fact rather patronising; after all, no one ever refers to Paris as the “Budapest of the west”. We thought of this while having our monthly dose of the “Maigret” books.  In the very early 1990s, Budapest posed as Paris for 12 television programs starring Michael Gambon as the famous French detective, and then in 2016-17 Rowan Atkinson arrived to play the part for four episodes. For film-makers, Budapest is the “cheap Paris of the east”.
25. June 2020 21:47

Gambon, who’s British, made a good fist of playing the Frenchman, and Budapest made a very passable Paris. It’s good fun watching these dozen programs and trying to spot where in the city they were filmed. One of the 12 Gambons happens to be “The Patience of Maigret”, which we had just read, so we watched it again and most of the action centred around the Batthyány Eternal Flame.

This representing 1950-60s “Paris”, market stalls had been set up, a horse and cart passed through and Maigret pulled up in an iconic Citroen Traction Avant, the model with the two upside-down “V”s on the radiator and running boards. But, as in the book, no “old-style bus with a platform pulled up at [Maigret’s] stop, so he could continue smoking his pipe as he watched the streets and the pedestrians gliding by”. Whenever the Danube can be spotted in the background, it’s a fair bit wider than the Seine. The Chain Bridge, the Duna Corso and the Little Princess statue are a bit of a giveaway too.

“Maigret’s Patience” was the 64th of the 75 “Maigret” books written by Belgian author Georges Simenon between 1931 and 1975. The original was “La Patience de Maigret” in 1965. As has been well-publicised in The Budapest Times, all 75 are being reissued one a month by Penguin with new translations. The project began in September 2013 and “Maigret’s Patience” is reissued this February 2019. There are, then, 11 more books to come, and despite Penguin’s insistence that “2019 marks the final year” of one of its most ambitious and extensive undertakings ever, according to our calculations number 75 will come in January 2020. Time will tell.

It’s the incidentals that we like in the “Maigrets”, as much as the actual plot. “Maigret’s Patience” opens at his flat in Boulevard Richard-Lenoir in summer and the Detective Chief Inspector and Mrs. Maigret have returned from Meung-sur-Loire, where they were working on the house they have been setting up for years “in anticipation of the day when, according to the regulations, Maigret was due to retire. In just over two years’ time! At the age of fifty-five! As if a man of fifty-five, who has never had a day’s illness in his life and doesn’t suffer from any infirmity, becomes overnight no longer capable of running the Crime Squad!”

Only 11 books to go, then, and Maigret, the indomitable solver of murders galore, will be put out to pasture. Sherlock Holmes became a beekeeper after handing in his magnifying glass, but, alas, we will never discover how Maigret will pass his more predictable hours. Only 11-plus murders to go, for Simenon usually gives us at least one a book, and in the case of “Maigret’s Patience” there are two.

The great man is having to be patient because for more than two years there have been unsolved, carefully orchestrated robberies from jewellery shops, involving young men smashing the front windows in daylight, grabbing the goods and escaping in a waiting car. No one is ever caught and the swag never turns up. In fact, the case will eventually be referred to as Maigret’s longest investigation, because it actually goes back 20 years, when he became interested in a certain Manuel Palmari, a Corsican crook who had started small as a pimp. Maigret is sure Palmari is behind the jewel robberies but can never prove anything. But when Palmari is suddenly murdered, and then another person in the same apartment building, the Detective Chief Inspector finally gets the breakthrough he needs.

For nearly two hours he goes through the building from top to bottom, from one end to the other: polite, patient but as obstinate as a door-to-door salesman. “As Maigret moved from one floor to the next, it was as if he was passing through a sort of Paris in miniature with the same contrasts as when you go from one neighbourhood or street to another … Dozens and dozens of questions, and just as many replies for Maigret to log in his memory. And from this pile, a few, maybe just one, would become significant at some point.”

When Maigret hones in on his suspects, he keeps them isolated, under permanent watch by his inspectors, with their phones tapped and thus no means of communication. Above all they are afraid: “Each of them in a cage, walking in circles, waiting for Maigret’s next move.”

By now, we know how our man operates. As his fellow inspector Janvier observes: “The previous day, Maigret had thrown himself into the case with a cheerful frenzy, drawing the protagonists out of the shadows, turning them over in his fat paws like a cat playing with a mouse and then putting them back in their corners. He was sending inspectors this way and that, as if he didn’t have a plan, telling himself that something would emerge.
“Then suddenly he wasn’t playing any more. The man sitting next to Janvier was a whole different person now, a human mass on whom no one had any purchase, an almost frightening monolith.”

And when it’s all over: “The world around Maigret was starting to return to life. He heard the sounds of the street once more, noticed the reflections of the sunlight and slowly relished the taste of his sandwich.”

As always, we love Simenon’s libidinous obsession with women (remember our previous advice, to google “Simenon 10,000”): “Outside, the air was sizzling, and the women looked like they weren’t wearing anything under their light dresses”, and “She was tall, sturdily built and, because of the heat, was wearing only pyjamas, her breasts showing through the half-open jacket. She felt no compulsion to button it up.” The obligatory prostitutes are always hanging around, a profession with which Simenon was well acquainted.

(PS: We are still trying to summon up the courage to watch the four “Maigrets” filmed with Rowan Atkinson. We understand that many actors don’t like to be typecast, but we have a horrible suspicion that no matter how many times funny man Atkinson looks gruff and puffs on his pipe, we will still see the rubber-faced Mr. Bean beneath the fedora. Still, we’ll probably take the plunge one day, if only to enjoy identifying the filming locations in the “Paris of the east”.)


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