Curious Georges

Cover photo by Robert Doisneau ©1964 GammaI suppose it would make better financial sense to get our copies of Georges Simenon‘s series of mysteries starring Inspector Maigret from the library, but these new paperback editions from Penguin are too seductive. First off, there’s the size; they’re a little wider and squatter than the usual mass paper: 4.75 inches in width by 6.5 in height — compared to the usual 4.125 by 6.75. The size allows for nice deep margins and gutters; a pleasure just to hold and easy to read.

Then there’s the great cover design — Inside front has a dramatic full-page photo of the author, angled like a movie star, lit light a film noir, the gimlet-eyed subject in fedora and smoking a pipe. The inside rear is entirely black save for the Maigret’s signature in white. The royal treatment promises confection.

Well, it would keep ME out of that field.On the front, beneath the author’s name and the title, each volume in the Penguin Maigrets displays a spot-varnished silvery black and white photo of a French subject somehow appropriate to the story.

The one I just finished, The Madman of Bergerac (1932), bears a photo by Robert Doisneau of a scarecrow. There isn’t actually any scarecrow in the novel, but the hideous effigy certainly sets the right tone: rural mayhem.

Simenon is taken seriously — for a genre writer, that is — by academic and literary types, and I can see why. Madman of Bergerac, for example, is in some ways an ordinary whodunnit: Commissaire Maigret is enroute to a restful week in the country, but his curiosity, aroused by the odd behavior of a fellow train passenger, gets him embroiled in the case of a country village terrorized by a homicidal maniac. Lurid enough stuff.

But what gets the litterati on Simenon’s side is the obtuse way he tells the story: After a brief flurry of introductory running around, our hero, Jules Maigret, is laid up in bed recovering from a gunshot wound. Knowledge of every other event for the rest of the novel is received either as second hand reports to Maigret, or as noises coming up from the ground floor, from outside the door, or from above, on the second floor. The only direct observation made by the Inspector is of the comings and goings in the village square outside his window, and not even all of that: some of the action takes place unseen just below the window. The protagonist, in other words, is in the same postion as the reader: he only knows what he is told; much of it false. This is just the sort of meta-stuff that allows academics to slum and still get grist for the publish-or-perish mill.

But don’t let that stop you. Simenon is hot stuff. Here is Maigret giving a townsman the third degree:

“Between ourselves, what facilities are there in this part of the world for enjoying the charms of the fair sex?”

Not the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from Sherlock Holmes, or, for that matter, from Mike Hammer. The mysteries are so French that they’re almost like reading science fiction. So far, most of the Maigrets I’ve read feature the disclosure, through the Inspector’s dogged snooping, of squalid sexual disorder hidden under a veneer of bourgeoise respectibility. Unfortunately, I am never clear on where mere Frenchness leaves off and squalid sexual disorder begins. That’s why we need the murders: they help draw the line.

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