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l'affaire saint-fiacre

4 may 2010

L'affaire Saint-Fiacre is an early Maigret where the detective does even less to solve the crime than his usual "method" dictates. And in fact, there's technically no crime to solve. The plot consists of Maigret showing up in his old home village and sitting around while several of its present inhabitants become extremely testy with one another. Stylized almost to the point of absurdity, L'affaire Saint-Fiacre still delivers quite a wallop in an overdrawn, obsessive way.

Maigret returns to his boyhood home because the police have gotten a tip: there will be a crime committed during the first mass on All Souls' Day. He goes to the mass, and the dowager Countess Saint-Fiacre promptly drops dead in her pew.

There's been foul play, but, as I said, no crime. The Countess has died of whatever it is people die of when they read an appallingly forged newspaper story advising them of their beloved son's suicide. The Count turns out to be perfectly alive and not at all suicidal. But he's broke, and that's the problem: various grasping types have attached themselves to his mother's estate, and now one of them appears to have provoked her death.

And now for the spoiler, if a brief note on a book published in 1932 can properly be said to contain spoilers. The "killer" turns out to be Émile Gautier, son of the Saint-Fiacre régisseur. A régisseur is – well, I suppose the English word is "bailiff," in the sense of someone who manages the accounts of a landed estate. We really don't have them in the United States, or haven't since slavery times.

The thing about this régisseur, however, is that Maigret's father was his predecessor. In other words, Maigret himself is the "son of the régisseur." As the crime is revealed, it turns out to be a crime committed by the detective's own double.

When the Count assembles all the possible suspects for a late-night drinking session and invitation to confess, he remarks that he's enacting a scene out of Walter Scott. More up to date, he's enacting a scene out of Agatha Christie. Simenon is rarely compared to Christie, for good reasons. She was the great postmodern puzzler; Simenon was the master of ambiance, and usually spun mysteries that contain no puzzles at all.

But in L'affaire Saint-Fiacre, Simenon gives us an Oedipally-charged situation with continual postmodern redoublings and foldings-back. The poor Countess spends most of the novel dead and undressed in an upstairs room as her son struggles with various gigolos and parasites. But the Count is a bit of a gigolo and parasite himself. Meanwhile, Maigret had spent his childhood with a serious crush on the then-young Countess, and grown up envying the Countess's debonair son, who's now a burnt-out waste of space.

Simenon doesn't underline any of these redoublings, but since the novel has no particular detective plot and only the phoniest of suspense, its energy comes almost entirely from the Christie-like device of having a detective discover that he's responsible for the crime. Well, not Jules Maigret himself, but his doppelganger; and in many ways it's a crime, a violation sprung from jealousy, that at a certain juncture in his life the young Maigret might not have minded committing. Like Jules, the young Émile has made his way in the world, and seems to have been thrown clear of the wreck of the Saint-Fiacre estate. But he keeps getting pulled back home – like the great detective himself.

Simenon, Georges. L'affaire Saint-Fiacre. 1932. Paris: Presses Pocket, 1992.