It’s been a number of years since I last read any Georges Simenon — the stark nihilism of The Stain on the Snow (1953) and the diaphanous erotic tragedy of The Blue Room (1964) left an impression if not exactly a desire to read further. Simenon is hard to ignore, however, partly because he wrote so many damn books and partly because Penguin have done such a fine job of reissuing them lately that they take up about 40% of the shelf space in most bookshops. I’ve always been of the impression that he is far more about people than plot…which is probably just as well, since on the evidence of this early effort he can’t plot for toffee.
It’s not a long book, The Late Monsieur Gallet (1931), but it is a very long short story. The discovery of commercial traveller Émile Gallet both shot in the face and stabbed in the heart while staying in a hotel in the provincial town of Sancerre while his wife was receiving postcards from him postmarked Rouen doesn’t really get going until probably chapter 6, with a lot of what comes before being one or two tiny details buried in lots of Maigret walking around in the heat, being a bit downcast, disliking the uptight airs put on by the victim’s widow, and wondering why the case feels odd. It is, to say the least, hardly a kinetic narrative, and written — or certainly translated — in so deliberately low-key a voice that no interesting turns of phrase are even given the chance to assert themselves. It’s not a slog, per se, but neither does it compel.
Once you settle to Maigret’s insanely haphazard way of conducting his investigation — he’s in Sancerre, like, three times before he even looks at the scene of the crime, and will go out of his way to ask three questions of someone and then leave immediately — there’s a certain charm to the fact that Simenon doesn’t really seem to know what he’s doing. He wants, you sense, to examine the palimpsest of the human soul, with its great many wrongs graven and then scored out, only to be written over again and again, but all that quietness eludes him at this stage since he should really provide a murder investigation like wot Gaston Leroux did…not yet comfortable in his own writer’s skin, Simenon shifts awkwardly from foot to foot whenever any direct speech is necessary, and hates interrupting Maigret’s thoughts with, y’know, actions.
It’s not a total failure, but struggles when we’re told things like, at 45 years old, Maigret…
…had spent half his life in various branches of the police force: Vice Squad, Traffic, Drug Squad, Railway Police, Gambling Squad. It was quite enough to dispel any vaguely mystical ideas and kill faith in intuition stone dead.
…only for him to then go an intuit all over the place at the descending of a kepi. Thinks he saw a woman looking at him while he investigates a crime scene? He’s “suddenly as good as certain” that she must be the mistress of the son of the victim. Tracks down a newspaper seller whose name was put on letters sent to the deceased? Intuits on the spot in a moment of inspiration that he’s a go-between for various parties. And the solution, and semi-false solution he presents to the owner of the villa situated next door to the hotel where the crime took place, struggles for any actual…man, what’s the word? Evidence. That’s it: evidence. Yeah, virtually none of that, more just a vague reaching in the dark to some actions that explain aspects of what he thinks might have happened because of…this weirdly mystical intuition he seems to have about everything.
The section of the book that actually deals in meaningful events and the investigation of those events — chapters 6 to 9, I’d argue — are more focused, but inconsequential. When the solution came, I didn’t really care; it seemed we went a very long way around. It’s clearly not Simenon’s idiom and, while I’m not sure how developed this type of investigative narrative was in mainland Europe at the time, it has to be said that others made far more comfortable starts in the same genre. It’s amusing to see some principles played here that would later become fodder for the more criminous-minded, like the notion that four people sat playing bridge is sufficient for them all to alibi each other when Agatha Christie would overturn that quite comprehensively five years later. You get the impression that Simenon viewed this book with horror in his later career, ashamed at the genre boilerplate this crams in when his real interest was in the quiet despair of human existence:
The only one absent was Émile Gallet. He was firmly in a coffin, half his face torn away by the bullet, maltreated by the forensic surgeon who had seven guests coming to dinner, a stab wound through his heart, and his grey eyes were open because no-one had thought of closing their lids.