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l'amie de madame maigret

13 march 2020

L'amie de Madame Maigret is typical of one category of Simenon's police procedurals in that it mixes a contrived murder plot with suggestive explorations of character.

The title character barely figures in the story. She's an anonymous someone that Madame Maigret chats casually with in the park while waiting for a dentist appointment. Nor does Mme. Maigret herself play any great role in the novel's resolution. But she provides a key insight along the way. Her ephemeral friend is, she learns, somehow involved in a scabrous case involving two human teeth found in the furnace of a mild-mannered bookbinder. Something struck Mme. Maigret as misaligned: her hat? her shoes? The commissaire's wife expends some shoe leather of her own, scouring Paris for sartorial clues to her friend's identity.

The limitations of Mme. Maigret's contributions bulk as large in the book as her detective work. Yes, she tracks down some indications about the mystery woman. But all she really knows are women's things. She understands a world closed to her husband, a world of small vanities, of fretting about a man's creature comforts. Every other aspect of police work is strictly a man's business.

Maigret is up against the impassive front that the bookbinder, Steuvels, puts on. Nor can Steuvels' wife Fernande offer any purchase on the case. She has been shut out of her husband's dicey doings. Interestingly, Maigret, with his long experience of the Paris underworld, can connect with the ex-prostitute Fernande in ways that Mme. Maigret never could. So it isn't even that Mme. Maigret understands women; she understands a certain slice of bourgeois womanhood. She could never even have a conversation with Fernande.

Other originals populate the mystery plot. Liotard, a young lawyer on the make, has somehow materialized to defend Steuvels, and to make his own career in the process. Moss, a colorful former clown well-known to the bunco squad, keeps turning up as Maigret's men investigate. An elderly countess, well-equipped with jewels, is somehow involved with Mme. Maigret's friend, and maybe Moss, and maybe some other desperadoes. And then the countess herself is found dead in an automobile in the Marne.

The solution to the mystery is contrived, as I said, but also somewhat banal. The criminals are driven by the least noble of motives. The whole book is fairly depressing, but gives a sense of the machinery of the police grinding cases as fine as the sawdust that the criminalist Moers finds in the mysterious blue suit found in Steuvels' closet (a suit covered in blood that, at the same time, can't be the bookbinder's). And for all that, a few wisps of intuition – including woman's intuition – provide the real breaks in the case.

Simenon, Georges. L'amie de Madame Maigret. 1950. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1989.