Thursday, 8 March 2012

Penguin no. 1419: My Friend Maigret
by Simenon

     In this very island, there was now someone who, like himself, heard the sound of the bells, who breathed the sabbath air, someone who was drinking in the same room as himself the previous evening and who, in a few days, would be shut up once and for all within four walls.
     He swallowed down his cup of coffee, ..., and he had some difficulty in realizing that all this could be serious: it was not so very long ago that he was wearing short trousers and walking across his village square, on chilly mornings, his fingertips numb with cold, to go and serve mass in the small church lit only by wax candles.
     Now he was grown up: everyone believed what he said, and there was only himself whom, from time to time, it was hard to convince.


The small Mediterranean island of Porquerolles is home to drifters and exiles, people who don't fit in elsewhere. The climate is warm, and out of season the life is leisured and languid, almost purposeless, with days structured by the daily transit of the ferry to the mainland, perhaps a game of p├ętanque in the afternoon, and evenings spent drinking at the Arche. The inhabitants have their enmities and their feuds, and people they avoid, but as far back as anyone can remember their existence has been peaceful. But now a murder: Marcellin, a small time thief, had passed his last evening in the Arche boasting loudly of his friendship with the renowned detective Maigret, and on the way home he had been killed.

Was the death a consequence of the boasting? Maigret is sent to investigate, though he seems to feel little interest in the case. Perhaps there is some allure in the prospect of a few days of warmth and sunshine, and the opportunity to escape from the dreary inevitability of life in wet, grey Paris. He succumbs almost immediately to the general torpor on the island, but remains aware throughout of an intensity of sensation, with his mind taking in the unfamiliar and the vibrant, in terms of colour, smell and sound.

But he is not free, and he cannot relax.  He is accompanied on this trip to Porquerones by the impassive and watchful Mr Pyke, a detective sent from England to observe the methods of the famous Maigret. But in the very act of observing Mr Pyke confounds the observation, for Maigret is oppressed and inhibited by the awareness that he is being watched. He finds himself acting against his own inclinations, and behaving as he thinks a renowned detective should. He is aware of feelings of inadequacy, a vague suspicion that that Mr Pyke is expecting something more, and a fear that he is disappointing him.

And yet nothing in Mr Pyke's demeanour suggests disapproval. He is barely developed as a character, functioning more as a tormenting presence, and a representation of all that Maigret knows he no longer is or never was: young, fit, rational, efficient and organised. For despite his success, Maigret has no method, or not one that could be demonstrated or taught. He solves the crime by being aware, and by having an intuition about people, their behaviour, and their motivations. He senses what has occurred.

The characters on the island, the murder and the solution give a purpose to the narrative, but they are not the focus. The story is really Maigret observing himself, noting how his fame affects others, reflecting on his feelings towards Mr Pyke, and watching in turn how he is affected by Mr Pyke's presence. It is the monologue inside his head as he notes the disparity between how he is seen by others compared with how he sees himself, a disparity amplified by his fame.

Also by Simenon:
Penguin no. 1680: Maigret has Scruples
Penguin no. 1854: The Little Man from Archangel
Penguin no. 2253: The Widower

2 comments:

  1. I read this book years ago Karyn and I can still remember it. A classic Maigret even if it is set outside his usual environs.

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  2. Some Maigrets seem a little more grounded in material detail than most. I have to admit that those to be my favorites!

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