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maigret et la grande perche
2 april 2021
"La Grande Perche" means something like "The Beanpole": a tall gaunt woman in her middle years, whom Maigret arrested long before under circumstances that still trouble him. Instead of coming along quietly, Ernestine la Grande Perche had stretched out on her bed "nue comme un ver" as the French put it, naked as a worm (12), daring him to drag her away.
Now, the incident long behind them (she hasn't seen him since), Ernestine arrives at Maigret's office in the middle of everybody else's summer vacation, with a problem. Her husband, Sad Al ("Alfred-le-Triste"), a veteran safecracker and general hard-luck story, has disappeared. Alfred had broken into the home office of a dentist, ready to rifle the safe, but was interrupted in his crime by a dead woman staring out of the dark at him. Alfred is safe, it seems – he's in Brussels, or maybe Le Havre, or maybe Rouen – but now the problem is: who is the dead woman? And was there a dead woman? And why?
Because at the dentist's place, everything is completely tidy: no body, no blood, no broken glass from the window that Alfred knocked out. But no woman either, or at least no dentist's wife. Mme. Serre had left town the very evening of Alfred's shocking discovery, supposedly heading home to the Netherlands to be free of her dour husband and her smothering mother-in-law. She'd never reached the Netherlands, and as the days go by Maigret is convinced that Alfred really did see her corpse before he fled the scene. But how to break through the stone wall put up by the dentist and his mother?
Ernestine lives up to her title billing by acting as an amateur sidekick to Maigret. In one well-drawn sequence, Maigret interrogates the dentist while Ernestine sidles up to the mother in the waiting room and commences a coy investigative game that the old woman holds to at least a draw. It's good that Maigret gets Ernestine's help, because his own tactics in Maigret et la Grande Perche consist of drinking way more than usual, and usual is an awful lot.
The best couple of pages in the novel are its last. Not to spoil all the details of the story – which is hardly a whodunit anyway – but once everything's been cleared up, Maigret reflects on what the principals are likely to be up to in a couple of years' time. The perpetrators are likely to carry on with their lives just as they always have, oblivious to their surroundings; Alfred-le-Triste is likely to still be casting about for that one big heist that will see him and Ernestine into retirement. And with that glum reflection, Maigret has another glass of red wine.
Simenon, Georges. Maigret et la Grande Perche. 1951. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1990.