I bundled these crime stories together because I did not enjoy either.
I got Cover Her Face by P.D. James for a bargain of 3.99 Euros in Frankfurt on my visit there. It’s a Faber Firsts edition; apparently, they are reissuing the first works of several authors to celebrate Faber’s eightieth birthday. This also was my first P.D. James, and most probably my last.
The book is not boring or anything, but it did not interest me one bit. At the time, I was also listening to an Agatha Christie, The Body in the LIbrary, an audiobook read by Stephanie Cole. Because I have gulped so many Christies in my youth, I have a natural tendency to compare similar works to hers, and more often than not, they usually fall short. Additionally, the audiobook, if read by a professional, opens up a different experience for us, especially us who are not native English speakers, and one gets the opportunity of sensing the subtle variations among characters through the vocal performance of the reader.
I suppose all these factors contributed to my indifference towards Cover Her Face. The story is quite simple: at a fête in St. Cedd’s Church, a yearly event, the new maid of the family who usually organizes the fête, the Martingales, is found murdered. Early in the book, we are told how the new parlour maid has been hired as a nice gesture from Mrs. Martingale, even though with time passing by she proved to be not the smoothest helping hand to deal with… The subtle interactions among the family members and their friends were the interesting part (for me) in the book. What I disliked was Inspector Dalgliesh himself, and his procedures, if he has procedures. I couldn’t frame the guy: was he indifferent? was he someone focused on the police procedures rather on the psychology of the people? Was he a combination of both?
I suppose P.D. James further developed the character of her inspector but for now; I had the same feeling with Wallander when I read another first Mankell. I suppose if I lay my hands on an audiobook rendition of one of her books, I might give her another chance.
In Maigret Tend un Piège (Maigret Sets a Trap), I felt that Simenon decided this time to focus on the working environment of Maigret rather than on his abilities to identify with the victims and the suspects. Having read his biography by Assouline, I discovered that actual detectives found his books rather funny and quite far from the realities of real police work.
Because of that, this story departs from several fixtures of previous Maigret stories. For instance, this is one of the few times where the weather in the story is nice: sunny, no rain, no fog, no overcoat under which Maigret must cover himself…
Another difference to other Maigrets is that, for the first time, if I’m not mistaken, Maigret finds himself in front of a serial killer. The story has some similarities to Jack The Ripper’s, though of course it is not set in Whitehall but in Montmartre. In the narrow streets and alleys of Montmartre women are either murdered or aggressed with the intention of murder. The trap that Maigret sets takes the form of a policewoman who is supposed to lure the murder into aggressing her right on time for the police to capture him. His scheme fails, yet sets him on another hypothesis that he explores to its limits. One of the few times where Maigret actually employs the police in his investigations to something more substantial than stakeouts and information gathering
Consequently, we find ourselves in front of a SuperMaigret: he barely sleeps, turns the circle of action where the crimes are happening or might happen into an artificial enclosure, turns himself into a one-man-show central command, is quite aware of the press and manipulates it to his own advantage, all the while managing to evade the inquisitive questions of the Juge Coméliau who is taking heat from his superior.
The police procedures of Maigret’s investigations have never been Simenon’s forte, and because Maigret has an indifference towards his superiors, one usually takes them more in humor than in seriousness. The real interest comes to us when the suspect is apprehended thereby revealing his psychology, his past, and his working environment; I was more looking forward to when Maigret returns to the atelier of the suspect than to when he returns home or to his office.
Because the book has an air of solving a serial killer mystery, it takes the form of a whodunnit, and here too I found myself waiting for the page before the last to have the identity of the murderer revealed. The book was made into a movie starring Jean Gabin and Annie Girardot. Unfortunately, the movie has nothing to do with the book. I never liked Jean Gabin as Maigret: I found him too loquacious to be a Maigret. The movie also introduced a relationship between two characters, probably to throw us off, that was not even in the book. One final detail I like to mention about the movie, because I suppose this must have irritated Simenon: it rains over Jean Gabin in the ending scene when he walks out to the streets, having solved the mystery. Simenon was, at a moment in his life, attempting to react against his publishers and the press who were requesting the typically Simonian “atmosphere” of rain and fog and cold, and I was very much surprised to find it there at the last scene of the movie.