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maigret et la vieille dame

6 june 2021

Maigret et la vieille dame is cozier than many another Simenon murder mystery. The old lady of the title comes from Normandy to see Maigret at the Quai des Orfèvres. Her maid has died from drinking medicine laced with arsenic and meant for the old lady herself. The others with access to her home and her medicine chest include the old lady's daughter, her two stepsons plus one's wife, and her daughter's clandestine lover. More the typical situation for Poirot than Maigret.

Though in a Poirot story, the victims and suspects tend to share a social level; even by Poirot's time, the butler had ceased being so murderous. In Maigret et la vieille dame, by contrast, class is everything. As Maigret settles into this insular Norman community to investigate, the usual suspects all seem to come from the upper-middle-class family where the murder occurred. As a local inspector tells Maigret, it seems to the victim's working-class family that the police

sommes ici non pour découvrir la vérité, mais pour empêcher "ces gens-là" d'avoir des ennuis. (122)

[are here not to learn the truth but to spare "those people" any trouble.]
And that's a reasonable assumption, but of course Maigret is closer to working-class in origin than to the Besson family he's thrown among in this novel, and he keeps coming back to the irreducible fact of the case: "Rose est morte," Rose is dead or none of them would be having these conversations. If he's there at their request, he really isn't there for the Bessons' convenience. He is there to find out why Rose died.

In the process, Maigret "arrivait de boire un peu trop" (123), to the dismay of his local colleague Castaing (161), but the Norman setting at least allows Maigret to branch out from his usual beer, marc, Pernod, and vin blanc into cider, calvados, and Pichon-grenadine. Alcohol hardly prevents Maigret from solving the mystery and may even enhance his deductions.

The solution ultimately involves some jewels (real or paste? in a distant evocation of Maupassant), a young woman's manias for intellectual conversation and home remedies, and her older employer's foibles and affectations. As so often in these ostensibly gritty procedurals, there is a bit of meta. One of the Bessons is a crime-story fan, and explains to Maigret that "dans les romans policiers, chacun a quelque chose à cacher" (107) – in detective stories, everybody has something to hide. Which isn't so in his prosaic, real-life family, he contends … but in the end, it turns out to be precisely the case.

Simenon, Georges. Maigret et la vieille dame. 1951. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1990.