Mon Ami Maigret

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When I woke up last Saturday to a gorgeously dark sky brooding with heavy clouds, I knew it was ripe time to pick-up a new Simenon.

I have 6 Volumes of the Tout-Maigret, from Omnibus, and I am starting with the fourth volume.
To my (slight) disappointment, the story I chose Mon Ami Maigret, is set at an island, Porquerolles, with its flanelle-clad dwellers and harsh sunlight casting golden reflections over the sea. One of the rare “sunny” cases, but yep, it had to be this one.

Brushing such a minor letdown aside, the book was fun to read. The first chapter opens up a tad on the hyperbole, when the reader learns that Mr. Pyke, the title name of the first chapter, is dispatched from Scotland Yard to observe the investigative methods of Maigret. Since this is Simenon writing, this inflated Maigret figure, himself suddenly under scrutiny from Mr. Pyke, is barely given much space, and we are directed back in, to the reality of the Quai des Orfevres, a bit too bluntly even, when Maigret receives a phone call from a brigadier relaying him the news that a man was murdered in Porquerolles because of his friendship with him.

Though I find Simenon favoring, often too much, the silent dialogues between the guest characters and Maigret, in Mon Ami Maigret, I had the feeling that such an exchange between the two was not given enough space to develop. Perhaps, this has to do with the sunny, not quite serious Porquerolles, which allegedly strikes new visitors with “Porquerollite” a virus that causes people to shed all formalities and embrace the sun and the sea, and the joie-de-vivre.
Nevertheless, what furtive exchanges occur between Maigret and Pyke remain the most interesting parts of the story; in fact, it is because of one of those, that I thought it would be interesting to review this book.

Here we are in 1949, an Englishman of the same profession as his French host, expresses his opinion about a suspect in the case. We are outside the café of the hotel, under the warm sunlight, there was between the Englishman and the suspect no interrogation, only a game of chess, and yet the Englishman is able to draw a portrait of the suspect, who is Dutch, because of general traits that he noticed and which are common among young people coming form morally rigid countries (comparing the Netherlands, back then, to England, is funny to me). He is even able to extend such an observation to the host country, France, claiming that the Dutch suspect must not seem a unique specimen to the French. Incidentally, his profiling of the Dutch came to confirm a mild uneasiness that Maigret felt around Mr. Pyke, because of the different approach he adopted questioning some of the suspects.

Maigret était un peu soucieux, un peu crispé. Sans être attaqué, il était chatouillé par l’envie de se défendre

Further ahead, Mr. Pyke informs Maigret that the Dutch speaks perfect English, an additional characteristic that adds definition to the Dutch’s portrait.

I appreciated those two pages for the simple reason that they feel quite distanced from us; how easy was it back then to sketch the identity of a character out of the general identity of a group, of a bigger sample. I find that these days everything is about assuming one’s own identity, about finding ourselves, uniqueness, differentiation. A crime writer of this present age cannot risk going into the familiar, or into the assumption, or into pre-defined types.

Before I close my review, and since this is Simenon writing, I find that the receding importance of the investigative techniques and procedures (to the disappointment of Pyke and his Scotland Yard superiors) and the untangling of the mystery in the background are what I enjoy most about every Maigret.

We are nearing the end of the story, the interrogation of the two suspects, which Maigret wanted to be done in confidentiality, at least as much as the island would allow it, is almost over

“Avouez, Monsieur X, que vous n’êtes pas fâché que ça craque!”

Jusqu’à ce “monsieur” qui blessait Y ay plus profond de lui-même.

at the same time, outside the interrogation room:

Le déjeuner avait commençé à l’Arche. Jojo n’avait pas dû se taire tout à fait, ou alors les gens flairaient quelque chose car on voyait de temps en temps des silhouettes rôder autour de la mairie.

Even though Maigret gave his orders to Jojo,t he girl who works at the café l’Arche, not to blabber about who is being interrogated and where, “word got out” as the saying goes and people started to gather around the mayor’s office.

We, readers, will never know how exactly word got out, and if it did, for that matter. It’s a totally inconsequential matter, because the book ends shortly after that, but I love that Simenon is able to move from ascertaining the psychology of the suspect, down to its minutest details, then gradually leaving the focal point of the interrogation to what is happening out there, without himself offering much about it, but nevertheless, creating a completely realistic and tangible atmosphere, very vivid in our mind, despite of (or maybe because of) the lack of any attempt to clearly resolve out every detail of the plot.

 

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La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert

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I have mixed feelings about this book. The fact that it won the “Prix de l’Académie Francaise” 2012 tips the scales towards disappointment. Then again if I was not intrigued by a crime book that won the said prize, I probably wouldn’t have even picked it up.

It is a 660+ pages crime book; that made me quite hesitant to consider it, I just assume there would be unnecessary details and characters and boring repetitiveness. I was wrong about the first two.

The book’s back cover states that it is a “reflection on America”. I don’t know how one understands such a phrase, nevertheless it felt to me a bit too much to qualify the book as such.

It is the story of a first-time successful young writer, Marcus Goldman, struggling to start his second work, who flies to the rescue of his mentor, the great Harry L. Quebert. Quebert is arrested and accused of the murder of the 15-year old Nola Kellergan, whose body (or the remains of it) is discovered 33 years (2008) after her disappearance (1975) from a small New Hampshire town, Aurora.

The book’s front cover is a painting by Edward Hopper, one of my favorite painters, “Portrait of Orleans”, and this book is certainly a portrait of Aurora. The inhabitants of Aurora seem typical of any small village; endowed with the natural virtues and vices and small-town life; they are friendly, nosy about each other’s affairs, yet understanding, even respectful, of each other’s privacy (if such a privacy exists in a small village), and as is the case in any small town, and especially those described in crime novels, newcomers almost always carry a deeper past with them.

Though the book is more action than description, yet the characters and the events occuring in the past are chronicled in such a way that one feels as if he was part of that fateful 1975 summer.

What felt a bit unsettling, in my opinion, was that the recalling of past events did not create in me this feeling of mystery one anxiously anticipates following the deep-digging in crime novels. I even felt that the paths that led our amateur detective-writer to snatch bits of truths about what happened from the dwellers of Aurora were too “programmed”; it was as if people awaited in their houses, or diners, or stores for the arrival of Marcus to recount him in precision what happened 33 years earlier. Over the lifespan of the book, I could count rare occasions in which characters seemed suspicious, or wary or cautious of the questions and deductions thrown-in by Marcus Goldman.

As the case is closed, every little twist of events is lucidly narrated by Goldman/Dicker so much that the imagination of the reader is left thirsty. This is because, throughout the book, Dicker retells the events from the perspective each and every actor directly or indirectly related to the crime, which generates so many overlapping narratives leaving no room for guesswork.

As the detective-writer finds himself entangled in the twists and turns of the book he is simultaneously writing, the reader is offered an entrance to the world of book publishing; there is a most revealing chapter of the book, chapter 6, that completely takes the charm out of the book publishing process. Nevertheless, it is revealed in such a way that I found it quite funny to read.

Overall, I enjoyed the book; it is an easy read of the simple lives of simple people in an average small town. I particularly appreciated that an author can still up an addictive crime novel without the bells and whistles of forensic science and technology, and rely on the simplicity of the characters to elucidate the mystery.