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maigret et son mort

19 december 2021

Maigret et son mort, "Maigret and his dead guy." If it were sa mort it would be Maigret and his own death, but Maigret exists comfortably in series-hero immortality and that novel can never happen.

The first half of Maigret et son mort is engaging and intriguing, with a can't-miss premise. Son mort, an unidentified caller, gets through to Maigret on the phone and explains that he's being followed, he's about to be murdered. The caller rings up from bar after bar as he wanders through Paris, this being many decades before cellphones. Ultimately he does turn up dead, dumped from a car in the small hours into the highly visible Place de la Concorde.

Maigret pieces together, through a mix of police procedure and intuition, that son mort has run a small café on the Seine, upriver from central Paris. To winkle out the killers, Maigret takes possession of the café, together with an inspector to serve as barman and the inspector's wife to act as cook. This is the Maigret "method" put to the extreme, taking over the persona of the victim.

A lead quickly appears, a nervous patron who leads Maigret and Lucas on a chase across the eastern side of Paris. Now the novel takes a turn and reveals an ugly side of Simenon. The suspect flees into le ghetto, the old Jewish quarter in the Marais (87). When he is killed in turn, Maigret orders une rafle cette nuit (92), a roundup tonight: the word rafle, in 1948, carrying unmissable echoes of the tragic roundups of foreign-born Jews by French police just a few years earlier during the Occupation. (Meanwhile, as so often in Simenon, the war seems barely to have occurred, so little trace has it left on his fictional France.)

Maigret speaks of the quarter as one of the worst parts of Paris, full of foreigners: and though the gang are identified as Czechs, possibly Gentiles – the novel is not explicitly anti-Semitic – it is hard to disentangle the various xenophobias at work. In any event, we are faced with an infestation of outsiders in France, outsiders with surnames ending in -sky and -ovitch, and Maigret finds the situation deplorable, and he and Simenon are the more deplorable for doing so.

Simenon wrote the novel to be ugly, it seems, and succeeded, and there is always another Simenon to move on to. Maigret et son mort, despite its clever opening, is regrettable, and I almost said "forgettable": though this aspect of its author should be remembered.

Simenon, Georges. Maigret et son mort. 1948. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1989.