Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Maigret’s Rival by Georges Simenon

The big-city detective and the small-town murder
In the tiny provincial village of Saint-Aubin-les-Marais, a young man is found dead on the railroad tracks, having been run over by a train. Despite the seemingly obvious cause of death, rumors start to float around the small town that the young man was murdered by Etienne Naud, whose daughter Geneviève was rumored to have been having an affair with the now deceased young man. Troubled by these rumors, Naud seeks help from his brother-in-law, Victor Bréjon, a magistrate in Paris. Bréjon turns to his colleague Jules Maigret, Superintendent of the Police Judicaire, and asks him, as a personal favor, to go to Saint-Aubin, uncover the facts of the case, and dispel these rumors before they do further harm to his brother-in-law’s reputation.

Once Maigret arrives in the small town and takes up lodging in the house of Naud, he feels like anything but a welcome guest. The town appears to be divided into two factions. The higher class citizens, consisting of the Naud family and their friends, simply want to forget about the unfortunate death and write it off as a mere train accident. But a small group of laborers, the victim’s peers and coworkers, insist the death was murder and demand that justice be done.

I have read a few of the earliest Maigret novels, and have always found the character of Maigret to be somewhat of a blank slate. This novel, originally published in 1944 under the French title of L’Inspecteur Cadavre, is the 47th installment in the series. Unlike the earlier books of the 1930s, this novel provides a great deal more insight into Maigret’s personality. Though written in the third person, most of the novel follows Maigret’s train of consciousness, allowing the reader access to the detective’s innermost thoughts, with the exception, of course, that none of the vital secrets of the mystery are revealed until the end.

The “rival” mentioned in the title is Justin Cavre, nicknamed Inspector Cadavre, a disgruntled former employee of Maigret’s. Now a private investigator, Cavre shows up in Saint-Aubin on the very same train as Maigret, and his actions seem to indicate that he is bent on thwarting Maigret’s investigation. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see much head-to-head intellectual dueling between the two. For most of the book, Cavre is offstage somewhere. We only really learn about him through Maigret’s thoughts. Mostly we see Maigret interacting with the citizens of Saint-Aubin, slyly coaxing out their closely guarded secrets. It is a joy to watch Maigret function in this small-town setting, where he is clearly a fish out of water, or perhaps rather a bull in a china shop.

The final chapter of the book is somewhat disappointing. Few surprises are revealed, and the guilty parties don’t receive the comeuppance they deserve. Yet the journey that leads up to this unsatisfying conclusion is an enjoyable ride, replete with the noir atmosphere and psychological authenticity characteristic of Simenon’s writing. Maigret’s Rival is not the detective’s most remarkable case, but it’s still a worthy read.

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