Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Maigret in Exile by Georges Simenon
Maigret’s always good, but this is not his best
Maigret in Exile, originally published in 1942 under the French title of La Maison du Juge, is the 42nd installment in the adventures of Jules Maigret, the Parisian police detective created by Belgian writer Georges Simenon. As the novel opens, Maigret has been demoted from his job in the capital—for reasons unstated in this book—and transferred to the post of district superintendent in the town of Luçon on the west coast. He is contacted by a nosy woman from a nearby community who claims that her neighbor, the town judge, has a corpse in his house. She and her husband made this discovery while peering over their back fence. Eager to investigate, Maigret travels to the seaside village of l’Aiguillon, primarily known for its mussel gathering. He catches the judge attempting to dispose of the aforementioned body, but that still doesn’t answer the question of who the dead man is or who killed him. He appears to have been a visitor to the bedroom of the judge’s daughter, an attractive young woman with a history of promiscuity and an unspecified mental handicap. After weeks of playing cards in the local bar, Maigret is delighted to have a murder on his hands. As he begins to unravel the tangled web that connects the inhabitants of this small town, his banishment to the outer reaches of France doesn’t seem quite so unbearable.
The first few chapters of this mystery are quite riveting. Simenon immediately sucks the reader into the world of l’Aiguillon and the lives of the judge and his family. As the investigation progresses, however, the story becomes less engaging. Simenon has established an inviting setting, and he has a wonderful protagonist in Maigret, but the way he drops clues to the reader doesn’t inspire a lot of suspense. Maigret conducts a series of interrogations, fueled by alcohol and tobacco, in which the players in the case gradually reveal their secrets. It soon becomes apparent that the solution to the murder is going to go one of two ways, neither one of which is particularly surprising. A few discoveries toward the end of the book, intended to be major revelations, are not unexpected, and the conclusion comes off as anticlimactic.
Maigret mysteries are generally somewhat unconventional, and usually that’s what makes them so satisfying. Simenon doesn’t settle for the clichés that permeate so much of this genre. He’s more interested in the genuine twists and turns of human behavior than in the construction of an artificial labyrinthine puzzle. In Simenon’s works, a surprise ending—so common in the mystery genre—is just another expendable cliché. This story, however, could have used a few more good old-fashioned potboiler conventions. It’s a pretty good police procedural, but lacks in excitement. Simenon is an excellent writer, and the Maigret series consistently maintains a certain high level of literary quality that transcends the typical standards of detective fiction. That’s precisely why one approaches these books with higher expectations than most. A mediocre Maigret novel is still better than 90 percent of what’s published in the mystery genre, but when compared to other Maigret novels I’ve read, this one fails to stand out as impressive. It’s a good read, but not a great mystery.
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