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le charretier de "la providence"

5 may 2010

Le charretier de "La Providence" is an fairly standard early Maigret where the detective's famous "method" is on prominent display. Still a member of the rural flying squad, our hero is brought in when a woman is found dead in a barge-board stable. It is 1931, and the canals of France are populated by motorboats, yachts, and horse-drawn barges. On board those barges, the horses that draw them during the daytime are tended by charretiers at night.

So how to solve a murder mystery involving a barge and a charretier? Just like you solve any other mystery, if you're Jules Maigret: you take up residence among the people of the canal, and commence drinking heavily.

Maigret's initial drinking buddies are a superannuated baronet and his man Friday, a pair improbably named "Sir Lampson" and "Willy Marco." The drowned woman, it appears, was Sir Lampson's gadabout wife. Before too many scotches are downed, Willy Marco himself fetches up in a lock with a lungful of canal water. The fat, elderly Lampson seems an unlikely suspect, given that both victims were strangled by powerful hands. So who could have done the murders?

I hate to give away the plot of a mystery novel, but this one is nearly 80 years old, and anyway its title is not as deceptive as it might be. The murderer is the charretier of the barge Providence. In his youth, charretier Jean had been a medical doctor. After giving his rich aunt one pill too many and being transported to Devil's Island, Jean developed some grudges against his young, frivolous wife. Many years later, when he met her again in the company of a yachting knight, Jean decided that strangulation would be a good balm for his wounds.

Well, it's not a great novel, but it's an interesting window into Simenon's lifelong fascination with life on the rivers and canals of Western Europe. My copy of Le charretier de "La Providence" is a 1971 printing with an egregiously groovy simenon in hot sans-serif chartreuse, and a blurry photograph of a barge. Ah, the things that used to turn up for two bucks in the mildewing bookshops of Manhattan.

Simenon, Georges. Le charretier de "La Providence." 1931. Paris: Fayard, 1971.