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la danseuse du gai-moulin

22 february 2013

La danseuse du Gai-Moulin is an early, but highly postmodern, policier by Georges Simenon. It cries out for a treatment along the lines of those that French literary theorist Pierre Bayard accorded to Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Conan Doyle's Hound of the Baskervilles.

A man walks into a bar – no, seriously – in the Belgian city of Liège. He has "murder victim" written all over him: he's rich, nervous, foreign, and clueless. On his heels enters an imposing Frenchman, who

tendait son chapeau melon au chausseur, restait un moment immobile à faire des yeux le tour de la salle. Il étair grand, lourd, épais. Son visage était placide …

[handed his bowler hat to the bouncer and stopped for a moment, surveying the room. He was tall, heavy, thickset. His expression was calm …] (10)
It's Maigret, of course, though he won't be named till halfway through the novel. Meanwhile, the victim is soon found dead behind the bar of the Gai-Moulin, by two teenagers who have hidden in the cellar past closing in hopes of stealing from the till. The big Frenchman, now suspect number one, has disappeared. And the corpse fetches up, not in the Gai-Moulin at all, but stuffed into a hotel laundry hamper in the middle of a public park.

Despairing of finding the Frenchman, the Belgian police center their investigation on the two teenagers. The kids are idiots, but they lack motive, means, and opportunity. And there remains the baffling question of how the victim got himself into the hamper and off to the park after dying.

At this point, Maigret reveals himself and his identity to his Belgian colleagues. They ask him to figure out how the man landed in the hamper, and the hamper in the park. Easy, says Maigret. I followed him here from Paris. He was killed in the hotel room next to mine. After persons unknown did away with him, I packed him into the hamper and dragged it to the park, the better to flush them out.

I'm sorry, but that's the flimsiest story told by any suspect in any Maigret novel, and it's told by Maigret himself. À la Bayard, the much likelier explanation is that Maigret tracked the poor guy from Paris to Liège in order to off him, in the interests of the state, and now has to cover his tracks by saying "But I'm Maigret! I solve mysteries!" and confusing the Belgian police.

The more I read of the early Maigrets, the more varied and inventive they appear. I read all the later, more formulaic novels first, and loved them, but I am coming to like the mercurial early Maigret just as much as the phlegmatic later one.

Simenon, Georges. La danseuse du Gai-Moulin. 1931. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1977.