"A Maigret Christmas and Other Stories” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Classics)

Un joyeux Noel

How many Maigret/mystery enthusiasts avidly bought all 75 of Penguin’s one-a-month reissues that began in 2013 and ended in January 2020? Probably a lot. Maigret/Simenon has survived the years. Apparently one fan of the books is Rowan Atkinson, who played the Detective Chief Inspector in four episodes filmed for British television in 2016-17, with Budapest and Szentendre standing in for 1950s Paris. Budapest was also used when 12 Maigrets were filmed in 1992-93 starring Michael Gambon. Apart from the 75 novels, the prolific Simenon penned 28 Maigret short stories, and one of them leads off the trio of novellas in this special Christmas book.
12. December 2020 14:58

The three were first published in French as “Un Noel de Maigret” in 1951, thus appearing 20 years after the first Maigret novel, “Pietr-le-Letton”, in 1931. This 2017 edition, like the 75 reissues, features a new translation, this time by David Coward, who is an Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Leeds and has translated many books from French for Penguin Classics.

The introductory story, the eponymous “A Maigret Christmas”, runs to 87 pages, which makes it about half the length of a normal “Maigret”. The story opens on a scene of cosy domesticity in the Maigrets’ flat on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. It is Christmas Day and Maigret is having a bit of a lie-in on a rare day off. Madame Maigret, that homely creature, is preparing coffee and croissants for breakfast, determined for them both to spend a quiet holiday cocooned at home and exchanging presents.

But – wouldn’t you just guess it? – crime doesn’t stop for mere holidays. As Maigret looks yearningly out the window – he’s not going to admit it and disappoint his wife, but he doesn’t like to be cooped up at home – two women from the apartment block across the road are on their way over, and the odds are they’re heading to see their famous neighbour, who just about everyone in Paris knows from the newspapers.

True enough, they have come to report an unusual occurrence on Christmas Eve. Collette, the seven-year-old niece of one of the women, woke in the night to find a man with white hair and whiskers and dressed in red – Santa Claus himself! – fiddling around with the floorboards in her bedroom.

Collette is an otherwise sensible little girl and she insists that she saw Santa, who quickly departed when he realised he had been rumbled, but leaving her a nice doll. Holiday or not, naturally Maigret must investigate, and the truth is he is rather pleased at the interruption, though, as we said, he would never confess to Madame Maigret that the prospect of a quiet day off duty always leaves him rather restless.

And so Simenon is away, pitching Maigret into a web of marital deceit, murder, gold smuggling and a missing person that he eventually solves all in the one day, simply by using his instincts and crossing back and forth across Boulevard Richard-Lenoir to inspect the scene and constantly phone the detectives on duty at the Police Judiciaire to check leads as he delves deeper into the puzzle.

Meanwhile the patient Madame Maigret gets on with her knitting and keeps the food warm until the great man has cracked the case. The plot is complicated but clever, and deftly handled by Simenon. Now, mystery solved, the Maigrets’ Christmas Day can resume.

The second story, “Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook”, is poor fare. Set on Christmas Eve, it’s one of those SImenons that reads like it was dashed off in a huge hurry so that its oversexed author could get down to the local brothel or find a streetwalker for a knee-trembler as quickly as possible. (In The Budapest Times’ many articles on the Penguin Classics reissues we resisted as much as possible the use of the number “10,000” in reference to the esteemed author. Check it out yourself, it won’t take a moment on Google. Some Simenon biographers cut the number to somewhere around 2000, which is still impressive, but not so much when you’ve paid for a lot of it.)

“Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook” is another police procedural but this time there is no Maigret. The whole thing, involving no less than eight murders, takes place in a single room, where a police switchboard operator connected to all the cop shops in Paris and sitting before a large map of the whole city directs operations in a cat-and-mouse chase through the streets. Simenon knocks it off in 93 pages and it is not a story to enhance his reputation.

Finally, “The Little Restaurant near Place des Ternes”, redresses the balance somewhat. Clocking in at a mere 29 pages and again minus Maigret, it is a real little oddity, and all the better for it. Three customers are left in a bar as it is closing up on Christmas Eve. One of them, a Russian, suddenly shoots himself in the head (well, why not? Simenon wasn’t always one for great plausibility). After the police have been and done their business with the stiff, the other two customers, two women who don’t know each other, depart separately.

One of them is a prostitute (a milieu with which Simenon, as mentioned above, was intimately familiar). The other woman is a naif, and out on the street it looks as though she may fall into the clutches of two disreputable men on the prowl for action on Christmas Eve.

Was it the death of the Russian that makes the prostitute want to be Father Christmas for once in her life, moving her to an unexpected act of festive charity to protect a woman she doesn’t even know?

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