Sunday, 19 May 2013

Penguin no. 2024: Maigret Mystified
by Simenon

     Maigret did not bat an eyelid. He was up to the neck in this everyday squalor which was more sickening than the drama itself.
     The old woman facing him wore an appallingly jubilant and menacing expression. She was talking! She was going on talking! Out of hatred for the Martins, for the dead man, for all the tenants in the house, out of hatred for the whole of mankind! And out of hatred for Maigret!
     She stood there with her hands clasped over her great flabby stomach. She seemed to have been waiting all her life for this moment.

Maigret Mystified was originally published in 1932 with the title L'Ombre chinoise, which translates as 'the shadow puppet show' or 'the silhouette'. It alludes to what Maigret observes when he first passes through the archway at 61 Place des Vosges in the Marais district of Paris. He has been summoned by the concierge, and as he stands in the darkened courtyard he looks up upon a series of well-lit apartments with curtained windows displaying the shadows of their occupants. One shows a man pacing backwards and forwards, and another has a woman gesticulating in anger. There is a laboratory adjacent to the residential building and its frosted window reveals the shadow of a man slumped across his desk. The concierge knows the man to be dead, shot through the chest while sitting in an armchair.

And if Maigret is mystified, it is not by the murder in the laboratory, but by the behaviour of the occupants of the adjoining block of apartments. The concierge is unhelpful, resenting the disruption the murder brings and more concerned with ensuring a peaceful environment for the woman upstairs giving birth. And when Maigret meets Madame Martin, the aggrieved woman whose silhouette he had glimpsed that first evening, he is appalled by her obsession with money. Accounts suggest she has gone through life causing misery for both her first and second husbands with her endless harping on their respective failures to provide her with the level of comfort she had anticipated. And then there is her neighbour Mathilde who spends every spare moment creeping along corridors and listening at doors, and drawing her pleasure from the unhappiness of others. He sees dull, drab lives being consumed in bitterness.

In contrast he finds himself feeling quite an affection for the unfortunate victim Couchet, and also for his girlfriend Nine, a cabaret dancer living on the Rue Pigalle. He admires Couchet's indifference to his to his wealth and his refusal to abide by bourgeois values. After trying his luck and failing many, many times he had unexpectedly found his fortune in the production of serums. His response had been to marry a cultured wife, perhaps as some marker of his wealth, but he had never given up his taste for ordinary things. A search of his home reveals the expensive and the commonplace sitting side by side, and Maigret suspects it is the same with women: the refined wife sits at home, while Couchet seeks the company of the working girl Nine.

Maigret identifies a few potential suspects including the wife, the girlfriend, and the embittered Madame Martin, for Couchet had had the misfortune of being her first husband. She had left him for someone she mistakenly believed to be a better long term prospect, and so his continuing presence in the laboratory downstairs is a constant reminder that her gamble misfired. They have a degenerate son, living in Pigalle, and slowly wasting his life and destroying his health through the consumption of ether.

Maigret Mystified is only a short book, and easily read in a single evening. There is little detection and no seeking after physical clues, with Maigret simply watching this small group of suspects. He has an intuitive sense of how people typically behave, and he looks for deviations from what he is expecting. The emphasis throughout is on analysing the characters and behaviours of those who may have benefited from Couchet's death. But we are also shown how Maigret feels about each of them, and particularly the contempt he feels for those who would make money the centre of their lives.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1419: My Friend Maigret
Penguin no. 1680: Maigret has Scruples
Penguin no. 1854: The Little Man from Archangel
Penguin no. 2253: The Widower


  1. I have to admit I found this one pretty dull (the book, not your review--I always enjoy those!).

  2. Thanks Curt. It was just too short for me to find it dull, but it definitely isn't my favourite Simenon.

    1. I tend to like his books in the 1940s better, I suppose that "middle period" Simenon.

  3. Thanks for your review, Karyn. Since it sounds as though the book has many of the Maigret features I like, I just ordered the book. Did you know that Simenon kept his books short because he believed one should be able to read his Maigrets in the time one would spend watching a movie? Also, as a Penguin fan, did you know the Simenon literary estate as been purchased by a British agency and it is collaborating with Penguin to put out new English translations of all the works starting this fall?

    1. The most recent Penguin editions I've seen are very neat little books.

  4. I do love the atmospheric quality of all of the Maigrets, and also Simenon's ability to capture a character in a short description. Intrigued by your previous commenter's news about translation!

  5. I wonder if Simenon pondered on the gulf between himself and Maigret: one a serial womaniser with a dodgy war record and the other a faithful searcher for truth and a belief in the necessity of giving a voice to the voiceless. You could say between them they amounted to a whole person.

  6. The first book in the new Penguin series happens to be the very first book in the Maigret series: Pietr the Latvian. It's scheduled for release this November. But enough on that, we're supposed to be blogging about vintage Penguins.



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