Sunday 9 March 2014

Penguin no. 1362: Maigret and the Burglar's Wife
by Simenon

It was the sort of day when one's apt to indulge in pointless speculation. The heat-wave may have been to blame. Perhaps the holiday spirit also prevented one from taking things very seriously. The windows were wide open and the muted roar of Paris throbbed in the room where, before Joseph came in, Maigret had been engaged in following the flight of a wasp that was going around in circles and bumping against the ceiling at invariably the same spot. At least half the plain-clothes section was at the seaside or in the country.

Later in the day, after he has spoken with Ernestine, the burglar's wife, Maigret notes that the wasp mentioned in the passage above has still not found its way to the window. I suspect its continuing circular and pointless journey is an allusion to the frustration Maigret feels with the investigation which begins with Ernestine's visit. This is a story about Maigret being uncertain: he is never sure if his investigation will succeed, or if he is investigating a murder which has actually taken place. The motives and actions which interest him and which he seeks to analyse here are his own.

Alfred Jussiaume, known as Sad Freddy, is a safe-breaker who is slowly working his way through the dozens of safes he installed in Paris as an employee of Planchart, and he cracks them with such skill that even the police speak of him with awe. Nothing will divert him from his quest, not even the risk of capture or the years he inevitably spends in gaol, as he believes that at least one safe in Paris must have been installed for the purpose of storing valuables rather than documents. If he just persists with his safe-breaking the day must come when he will uncover the perfect haul, and that haul will allow him to retire to the country. Perhaps the wasp provides a metaphor for Sad Freddy's quest as well.

But what Sad Freddy possesses in skill is offset by what he lacks in luck. His haul to date has amounted to a great many title deeds and very little cash. And on the very night that he sits on the floor of a dentist's study in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and before a safe holding more gold than he could ever spend, and that not even legally obtained, he finds that he is sharing the room with the dead body of a middle-aged woman, one who has clearly been murdered. Sad Freddy panics: he abandons his attempt on the safe, leaves behind his tools, discards his bicycle in the Seine, and immediately leaves Paris by train, stopping only for a brief explanatory call to his wife. This is the story that Ernestine tells to Maigret.

Sad Freddy absconds to avoid the possibility of being mixed up in a murder; Ernestine seeks Maigret's assistance because she wants her husband to come home. But Maigret does not know if he can help, because of the silence from Neuilly: there is no report of a murder, nor of an attempted robbery, and when he finds his way to the dentist's home on the basis of Ernestine's description, he finds himself dealing with a man who will co-operate with the police when he must, but who is intransigent in all other respects. In particular he avers all knowledge of a break-in, an attempt on his safe, and an unexpected death in his study. He has an explanation for every detail which may imply guilt or complicity, maintaining that his middle-aged wife returned to her native Holland on the day in question. His elderly mother backs his story unreservedly.

The dentist is taller than Maigret, and certainly heavier, and this seems to increase Maigret's sense of the level of the challenge that such a man represents. Wearing him down, overcoming his implacability and composure, and forcing him into a retreat, become Maigret's obsessions. He conceives of it as a contest between two heavyweights, as a series of rounds which either of them can win or lose, but from which only one of them can eventually emerge victorious. Maigret's mood follows the trajectory of his fortunes in the battle being fought with this man.

And with this focus on the battle of wills in which these two men are engaged, the solution to the murder case, and the problem of Sad Freddy's obsession, seem almost incidental. Maigret's interest is in his own determination to win, and in the analysing his feelings and his tactics as he takes on someone he perceives as a formidable opponent, and so different to the people with whom he normally must engage. The solution is no surprise, and yet Simenon maintains the tension until the final page. It is one of the most interesting stories featuring Maigret that I have read.

Maigret et la grande perche first published 1953. This translation (by J. Maclaren-Ross) first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955. Published in Penguin Books 1959. This edition a 1960 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. 1678: Maigret and the Old Lady
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. He's probably outside your time-span, but Julian Maclaren-Ross, translator of this book, was a notorious eccentric, dandy and debtor and wrote fine short stories and a Memoir of the Forties. If you pick up copies of Penguin New Writing you will find his stories in some of them.

  2. I've never read any Maigret books, but I really like the sound of them. I'll look in the library and see if they have any.

  3. I've got a standing order with my local bookseller for the next six or seven years I'll be getting each Maigret Penguin puts out here in the U.S. Penguin is publishing all 75 at the rate of one a month.

    I'm so happy.

  4. I enjoyed this review. I keep seeing reviews of Simenon's mysteries and wishing I would get to reading the few that I have.



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