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liberty bar

5 december 2014

I recommended against reading Georges Simenon's 1932 novel Le fou de Bergerac. But Liberty Bar, published just three months later, is not only a very good novel but an epitome of the Maigret "method" and of Simenon's practice as a novelist.

Among other things, the nasty anti-Semitic tone of Le fou de Bergerac is absent from Liberty Bar. Simenon could be xenophobic and racist, but those views were not obsessive with him. In Liberty Bar the foreigners are Australian, and their nationality is unproblematic. Simenon foregrounds issues of social class and generational conflict.

As with most of the early Maigrets, Liberty Bar is set outside of Paris. One can almost see a deliberate "tour de France" going on in the Maigret novels of the early 1930s, as our hero is seconded to this or that part of the Republic to tidy up some messy murder. In this case, he's sent to the Riviera. William Brown, dissolute Australian sheep magnate, has been murdered, and there are apparently state secrets in the background that we never learn about. So the watchword is "Pas d'histoires": no scandal, please.

The whole brief novel takes place in a "sensation de vacances," a vacation atmosphere. The weather, the sun, the beach, the villas, and the yachts are all surreally perfect. So perfect that, a decade before, said Brown had come to Antibes on business and stayed behind, leaving the sheep to his extended family, running through his personal fortune, and subsisting on the charity of his son – all the while maintaining not one but two ménages with two women apiece. He's living the dream as he works his way down the social scale into nightmare, drawn more and more to the almost absurdly sordid enticements of the title locale.

And then Brown is stabbed in the back and buried in the garden of his villa by two of the more upscale of his five "wives." When the two women try to abscond with their movables, the local cops nab them and send for Maigret. His first move is to release them. They have zero motive to kill Brown, and have in fact panicked upon finding him dead and the gravy train suspended.

Maigret takes the bus to Cannes (he never learns to drive), and begins drinking heavily at the Liberty Bar. Throughout the novel, the other characters note how much he resembles William Brown. He notes it, too. He's drawn to or repelled by people in Brown's circle, much as the dead man himself was. Ultimately, when he learns the killer's identity, the injunction "pas d'histoires" aligns with his personal sense of justice and his fondness for the tragic, debauched murderer. He buries the case and attributes the murder to an "inconnu."

Simenon would later write scores of Maigretless novels that try to imagine a household at a moment of crisis: sometimes a crime, sometimes just a natural accident or twist of fate. As his repertoire expanded, the later Maigrets become more and more standard procedurals, though they never lose their flair for creating a believable web of circumstances around a murder. In an early masterpiece like Liberty Bar, Simenon has a small slice of world to build and uses Maigret as an excuse to do so. It's a vivid creation that works on many levels.

Simenon, Georges. Liberty Bar. 1932. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 2011.