Sunday, 26 January 2014

Penguin no. 1678: Maigret and the Old Lady
by Simenon

Cover design by Romek Marber.
For him who had been born and spent his childhood far inland, the sea had always been like that: shrimping-nets, a toy train, men in flannels, beach umbrellas, shopkeepers selling shells and souvenirs, bars where you could eat oysters and drink white wine, and boarding houses where Madame Maigret became so unhappy after a few days of doing nothing with her hands, that she would gladly have suggested helping with the washing up.

Rose dies in the early hours of the morning after suffering convulsions characteristic of arsenic poisoning. The empty glass on the table beside her bed suggests that the poison was delivered via a late-night drink, and one which had been consumed by choice. The next day Valentine Besson takes the early morning train to Paris to implore Chief-Inspector Maigret's help in determining who it was that murdered the young woman, as she refuses to entertain the idea that Rose may have committed suicide.

But Valentine's plea to Maigret isn't entirely selfless. The two women shared a home, Valentine as the owner, Rose as the maid, and Valentine cannot accept that anyone as insignificant as her maid could be the target of murder plot. As no one would benefit from her death, and as her experience of life was so constrained that she never had the opportunity to behave in a way which could lead to someone bearing her a grudge, almost everyone in the village agrees that Rose cannot have been the intended victim: it must instead have been Valentine, the old lady of the title. And so it is generally accepted that it is only by chance, and Rose's misfortune, that Valentine remains alive, although Rose's family hold a different view.

The normally quiet house had been filled with visitors that day. Valentine's daughter had travelled from Paris to celebrate her mother's birthday, one of Valentine's stepsons had brought his large family to lunch, and the other stepson, whom she hadn't seen in years, had paid a brief and unexpected visit in the evening. Any of them could have tampered with the sleeping draught mixture which Valentine kept in her bedroom and which she always prepared for herself each evening. On this night she had asked her maid to dispose of the soporific, finding that it tasted more unpleasantly bitter than usual. It seems that the maid had disposed of it by drinking it herself.

Something in the old lady's appeal moves Maigret, and the next morning finds him on a slow train heading to Étretat, a seaside village in Normandy. The journey induces a kind of nostalgia, a reminder of his childhood conception of paradise as a young boy growing up miles from the sea. Even with all he has since learnt of human nature, he is troubled by the idea that murders are committed in such places. He would prefer that it were possible to sustain the illusion that the world is a better place than it is.

Maigret's feelings of  nostalgia and regret feel like a weight upon this story. He could almost be described as languid and listless as he wanders about Étretat, at times seemingly more intent upon food and alcohol, and capturing some sense of a holiday spirit, than in investigating the crime. His apparent lack of interest has the local inspector feeling rather uncomfortable in his presence, aware that Maigret doesn't want to read any reports on the case and seems to not even be listening when he fills him in on its details.

The only time Maigret does seem to come to life while in Étretat is in the company of the charming old lady, who despite her age seems something of a flirt. She had once known a life of luxury: a chateau, overseas travel, cooks and maids, but the family had come down in the world after the failure of her husband's business, and all she has now is her small home in this remote village and her memories. Every day that he remains in Étretat, Maigret seems to find a reason to take the long walk out to her secluded home, and she is always willing to encourage his visits by opening a bottle of calvados. He does not feel the same enthusiasm for her family.

Yesterday these people meant nothing to him, today he is pestered with questions about who murdered Rose, and he resents this expectation that he should simply know who the killer is without being allowed the time to gradually develop an understanding of the family and of anyone else who could be involved. In reflecting on his method it seems to him that purposely not assuming an opinion too early is a key to his success, and that the drinking may be another. He notes that there is always a moment in each case when things 'began to rumble', when he begins to see those involved from the inside, and at such times he has almost always had a little too much too drink.

This is book was published in the same year as Maigret's First Case, and it is again a different Maigret being presented. This seems to be Maigret at his worst: short-tempered, disconnected, bored and troubled, missing his wife, and judgemental about the people he meets, and all the time drinking far more than he should.

Maigret et la vielle dame first published 1953. This translation (by Robert Brain) first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1958. Published in Penguin Books 1962. This edition a 1962 reprint.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1222: Maigret's Mistake
Penguin no. 1419: My Friend Maigret
Penguin no. 1594: Maigret's First Case
Penguin no. 1680: Maigret Has Scruples
Penguin no. 1854: The Little Man from Archangel
Penguin no. 2024: Maigret Mystified
Penguin no. 2251: Maigret in Court
Penguin no. 2253: The Widower
Penguin no. 2590: The Iron Staircase


  1. it's always so strange to see a date stamp for what it today, for you, and yet still tomorrow, here in los angeles.


    we saw you have a post about Plum Wodehouse - heading there right now.



  2. Did you think the book was any good? Did it satisfy you as a novel or as a mystery?

    1. It was interesting in that it showed another, less pleasant, side of Maigret - I was informed by it, even if I didn't enjoy reading it as much as the other Simenons I have read recently. I wouldn't recommend it to someone who had never read Maigret; I would recommend it to someone who wanted to develop a deeper understanding of the character.

      If I thought the book had any flaws I would note them, but beyond that I'm not sure that my personal classification of a book as 'good' or 'bad' would have any meaning, even just to myself across time, let alone to anyone else. I tend to be interested in whether there is something to be learnt.

  3. "Drinking far more than he should" is typical Maigret. The disconnection you identified is not.



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