“Death Threats and Other Stories” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)
The long and the short of it, for anoraks
But how many? No matter where we looked for information, even on publisher Penguin Random House’s website, we could not find any list of the stories the book would contain. There was, then, a little disappointment when “Death Threats” finally turned up in Hungary – a slim 171 pages of actual text and the “Other Stories” turned out to number just four. So five in total, three of them apparently being published in English for the first time and all newly translated by Ros Schwartz.
This lady is one of the 10 translators involved in re-translating the 75 “Maigrets” that Penguin released in new editions one a month in chronological order between 2013 and 2020. During that time they also released a compilation in 2018 called “A Maigret Christmas and Other Stories” that contained just three short stories, with only one of them a “Maigret”, the eponymous “A Maigret Christmas”. This book could have been a bit thicker too, we felt.
Belgian author Simenon, born in Liege, Belgium, in 1903, died in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1989, also wrote well over a hundred so-called “psychological” novels, his romans durs, or “hard novels”, and around 40 of these also stand on our bookshelves. You can say we have a bit of a fascination with the ultra-prolific author who started out by writing dozens of mostly forgotten novels under many pseudonyms before he felt confident enough to use his own name.
This fascination is based not only on the fact that obviously most of them are damn good reads, but also that Simenon turned them out at speed and sometimes his slip was showing. So, when we get our hands on one we don’t have, which will it be – classy or clunker? Mostly the former, of course. (And the strange fellow obviously had sex on the brain.)
After finishing the reissue of the “Maigrets”, lately Penguin has continued on to re-translate some of the psychological books – “The Snow Was Dirty”, “Mr. Hire’s Engagement”, “The Mahé Circle”, “The Pitards”, “The Krull House”, “The Little Man from Archangel”, “The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By”, “The Hand”, “The Blue Room”, “Three Bedrooms in Manhattan”, and, most lately, “Betty”. Another, “The Strangers in the House”, is on the way in November, then “The People Opposite” in February 2022, and we hope it doesn’t stop there.
Another two publishers, The New York Review of Books and Melville House, have also put out a handful of Simenons in recent years, but if you want to collect older editions you mostly have to go second-hand, online.
Coming back to “Death Threats and Other Stories”, the five inclusions are “The Improbable Monsieur Owen”, “The Men at the Grand Café”, “The Man on the Streets”, “Candle Auction” and “Death Threats” itself. The plot thickens here (as it should in all good detective stories) because we have been unable to work out which three, according to the advance publicity, are the ones being published in English for the first time (and if we are interested in something, we do like to know these things. In English there is a word for it – an anorak, defined as a person who is extremely enthusiastic about and interested in something that other people find boring. Sorry, guilty as accused.)
Two such out-of-print Simenons, and we don’t have them, are “Maigret’s Pipe: Seventeen Stories” and “Maigret’s Christmas: Nine Stories”, both published back in the previous millennium. The latter includes “Sale by Auction”, which is “Vente à la bougie” (1941), now translated as “Candle Auction” by Ros Schwartz. Of all the other four in “Death Threats”, there is no sign of them in these two old compilations.
And intriguingly, on the excellent comprehensive website www.trussel.com/f_maig.htm run by one Stephen Trussel, he himself has translated “L’improbable M. Owen” (1938) under the title “The Unlikely Monsieur Owen”, “Menaces de mort” (1942) under the title “Death Threats” and “Ceux du Grand-Café (1938) as “The Group at the Grand Café”. (Trussel has also translated the pseudonymous Georges Sim novel “La Maison de L’Inquiétude” (as “The House of Anxiety”) from 1930, and his website has much interesting material, such as the differences in English translations of the same Simenon stories. When we get round to it we’ll have a look at the differences between Trussel’s and Schwarz’s translations. Bravo, Mr Trussel.
Hopefully, Penguin Random House will follow up “Death Threats and Other Stories” with more selections. These are the five so far –
“The Improbable Monsieur Owen” – The weakest of the five stories comes first, one of those silly Simenons, though it has nice flourishes and is an example of the Maigret method. No longer a member of the police, he has enjoyed three days in a luxury hotel, the Excelsior, on Cannes’ Croisette. Until, that is, a guest is murdered, drowned in the bath. Maigret feigns total disinterest, puffing away on his pipe, strolling along the jetty, but of course he can’t help thinking it all over and getting sucked in. Rather unlikely, he basically solves the case in his head and then proves it with an outrageous bluff. “It was years since he’d had to put someone through an interrogation like this, nerves tensed, an interrogation where he had to find out everything without ever showing his empty hands.” If all murders were this easy to solve, there would be no detective fiction. Call it the improbable Monsieur Maigret.
“The Men at the Grand Café” – Maigret is in retirement at Meung-sur-Loire, finding it hard to keep occupied in this haven of French rural tranquillity. Rather reluctantly he has become one of the group playing cards in the local café with the crème de la crème of local society – the butcher, sometimes still in his bloodstained apron, Citröen the mechanic, and an interchangeable fourth, either the mayor-cum-vet, Urbain the café owner, or the farrier. As often with Simenon, there is the usual woman generous with her favours, and this is Angèle, 20, the waitress. The butcher it is who winds up dead, shot in the chest, and as both he and Urbain are involved with Angèle, Urbain is naturally a suspect. So could be his jealous wife. Maigret again refuses to be involved but three years later he reveals that he had quickly known the truth but needed to keep it to himself. “Had he left Quai des Orfèves to come and play cards with these good fools,” he unkindly reflects.
“The Man on the Streets” – Another example of the Maigret method. Ernest Borms, a Viennese doctor and socialite who lives in Neuilly, has been found dead in the Bois du Boulogne, shot through the heart. The police announce that they will reconstruct the crime, a subterfuge to see if any suspicious-looking characters, perhaps even the killer, will attend. A couple who do show up are followed but quickly eliminated as suspects. But one is seen to have a guilty conscience and to throw something in the Seine. “That was the start of a hunt through a completely oblivious Paris that was to last five days and five nights, among hurried pedestrians, from bar to bar, café to café, a lone man, on the one hand, and, on the other, Maigret and his officers working in shifts, and, by the end, becoming as exhausted as the man they were stalking.” Then comes the twist we might expect at the end of a good crime yarn…
“Candle Auction” – The shortest of the five stories at only 20 pages. Oddly, Maigret is the head of the Nantes Flying Squad, presumably in pre-Paris days. The scene is a roadside inn at Pont-du-Grau in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest village, in the heart of the Vendée marshlands. Borchain, who had arrived from the Angouleme area with a wallet stuffed with banknotes for the auction of a farm, has been found in his room with his skull smashed by a coal hammer from the cellar. The suspects are old Nicolas, the eel fisherman, customs officer Gentil, Groux the farmer and Frédéric Michaux , the inn owner, an ex-pimp better known to the police as Fred the Boxer. These four played belote every evening. Add Fred’s wife Julia, ex of the Place des Ternes (Simenon code for a prostitute) and Thérese, 18, the little servant girl who is a ward of the state. “For three days [Maigret]’d kept them on tenterhooks, minute by minute, making them repeat ten times the same gestures and the same words with the hope, of course, that a forgotten detail would suddenly surface, but above all with the aim of breaking their nerve, of pushing the killer to the limit.” What a crazy idea, Maigret himself thinks. Indeed.
“Death Threats” – Émile Grosbois, a rag and scrap metal merchant in the Bastille neighbourhood of Paris, has received one of those notes made from words and letters cut out from newspapers, warning that he will die. Maigret takes the train to spend the weekend at the family home in Coudray-Montceaux. Simenon notes: “Families are capable of having an outsider live among them for weeks, months even, without revealing anything of the shameful little secrets that are the dirty linen of any household.”
Read on, reader, read on.