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monsieur gallet décédé

20 march 2012

Like other very early Maigret novels, Monsieur Gallet décédé is atmospheric and suspenseful, if ultimately far-fetched. Much like its predecessor Pietr-le-Letton, its secret comes down to a fateful exchange of identities. The identity switch is preposterous, but the world in which it occurs is keenly evoked. In that way, Monsieur Gallet décédé reminds me of the detective fiction of Ross Macdonald, who was possibly a fan of these early Maigrets. In this early novel by Georges Simenon, as in so many of Macdonald's Lew Archer novels, a long-buried secret emerges, threatening a comfortable illusion that has grown up on its grave. And a detective has just a few days in a new environment to uncover years of deceptions.

When M. Gallet dies in Sancerre, a good ways south of Paris, his widow insists that he must be alive in Rouen, a good ways to the northwest. After all, he just sent her a postcard from there. He always sends her postcards from Rouen, where he travels as a sales rep. Come to find, of course, that Émile Gallet never goes to Rouen, hasn't been a salesman in years, and for that matter, isn't even Émile Gallet.

He is dead, though, and he's definitely the man who was married to the erstwhile Mme. Gallet, and is the father of her son, the aristocratic-looking, independent-minded Henry Gallet, who chafes at being the son of a traveling salesman and now chafes even more at the thought that his father was something different entirely: a con man who'd earned his money by touching aging monarchists for "contributions" to the legitimist cause.

So who is Gallet, and how did he get himself killed? The affair takes on elements of a locked-room mystery. In fact, Monsieur Gallet décédé confirms Simenon's early simultaneous attraction toward Agatha-Christie-like puzzles and the more psychologically-oriented suspensers that would characterize most of his mature work. In Monsieur Gallet décédé, the solution to the murder mystery is extremely arcane. But the solution to the question of Gallet's identity is far more psychologically plausible, if outlandish in its factual resolution.

Simenon's forte, however, was always to have Maigret go into a dwelling and come away with a sense of what made one person there kill another. In his classic incarnation, he would do so in one Paris apartment building after another, for decades. In Monsieur Gallet décédé, he's still a member of the Brigade Mobile, and has to race around northern France till the case is resolved. But he's identifiably Maigret, the great interrogator of banal lives.

Simenon, Georges. Monsieur Gallet décédé. 1931. Paris: Presses Pocket, 1976.