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l'ombre chinoise

10 august 2013

In 1931, Georges Simenon published eleven novels with Jules Maigret as detective hero: the first eleven books of what would become a series of at least 75 novels and many shorter fictions. He charged ahead at full speed for the first few months of 1932, publishing six more before stopping to do something else once in a while (namely, write a lot of other books). In L'ombre chinoise, the first Maigret to appear in 1932, he seems to have hit for the first time in a dozen novels on the theme that would constitute his archetype: the detective faced with unraveling the mysteries of a single Paris apartment building, its many lives separated by thin walls, its unhappy families, its spies, its harried concierge.

Couchet, a self-made millionaire, sits dead in his office, his safe rifled. Ordinary prowler? Invading robber? Maybe; but come to find that the office is in the same building as Couchet's jealous ex-wife and her ineffectual husband, who have been behaving as strangely as Couchet's deadbeat drug-addict son, who lives across Paris in the apartment next to that of Couchet's mistress. The plot thickens immediately, giving Maigret a terrific headache.

But he often has such headaches during the long series of Maigret novels that Simenon wrote after the Second World War. Good honest gangsters would be preferable to the tortured domestic souls who commit the most memorable Simenon murders, but for that very reason we see few professional gangsters in Maigret novels, and many, many people who commit murder to save face or avenge imagined slights.

Class and sex collide in L'ombre chinoise to kill Couchet. He's worked his way up from vulgarity with the help of a first wife who has her eyes on a respectability he just isn't interested in. He divorces her; she marries a respectable bureaucrat; and then Couchet strikes it rich. He then marries a society woman of impeccable class credentials, finds marriage to her stifling, and takes up with Nine, straight off the chorus line. It seems that nobody in Simenon's Paris can be content with who and where they are. Though it's never mentioned in the novel, Maigret himself is of fairly humble origins, and one senses throughout that only the weight of his personality (mirrored in the weight of his frame) keeps him from the same restless anxiety as the similar Couchet. He comes to identify with and admire the victim, and realizes with a start at one point that he's only ever met the man dead.

Simenon, Georges. L'ombre chinoise. 1932. Paris: Fayard, 1989.