Monday, March 2, 2015
Maigret and the Fortuneteller by Georges Simenon
A murder foretold
Maigret and the Fortuneteller is the 44th adventure of Inspector Jules Maigret, the Parisian detective created by Belgian author Georges Simenon. It was originally published in 1944 under the French title of Signé Picpus. It has also been published in English under the title of To Any Lengths.
As the story opens, Maigret and his men have most of the fortune tellers in Paris placed under surveillance. Earlier that day, a clerk named Mascouvin is dining at a café when he decides to write a letter. He asks the waiter for paper, ink, and a blotter. On the previously used blotter he finds the impression of a note from someone named Picpus stating that he is going to kill a fortune teller that evening. Mascouvin takes the blotter to the police, and a mad scramble ensues to find the intended victim before the crime is committed. This premise may seem a bit incredible to the 21st-century reader. The idea that the police would grant such urgent attention to so thin lead is dubious, but perhaps in the 1940s death threats weren’t tossed about as casually as they are these days. Despite the questionable setup, the mystery that follows is a good one. The police are unable to prevent the murder, leaving Maigret with a perplexing case to solve.
I’ve read several of the Maigret books, and this is one of the best ones I’ve encountered so far. The novels in this series sometimes read like straightforward just-the-facts procedurals, albeit with deeper psychological undertones, but in this book Simenon experiments a bit with the usual template. Here and there he takes literary license with the chronology. The first chapter described above, for example, opens in mid-investigation, and only through flashbacks do we figure out the purpose of the fortune teller dragnet. One chapter opens with a beautifully written montage in which all the characters of the story wake up simultaneously in various neighborhoods of Paris under vastly different circumstances. In other novels, I’ve found that Maigret’s investigative method often amounts to little more than lingering amongst the suspects and intimidating them until someone cracks. In this book, however, he really does some crafty detective work to solve the case. Some judicious stream-of-consciousness passages let us in on his thought process as he unravels the tangled web of clues. The way in which all of the various characters end up being connected in the end is truly ingenious and unexpected.
One of the things I enjoy most about the Maigret novels is the glimpse that they offer into French life. Simenon’s perspective is much more frank and authentic than the romanticized images of Paris that we get from English-language authors. Most of the story takes place in Paris, with a brief trip to Morsang, a riverside weekend getaway spot which was also the setting of Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine. In the way he reveals French society through his novels, Simenon is like a modern Balzac. By including characters of every conceivable background, class, and walk of life, the cumulative creation of Maigret’s world amounts to a sort of 20th-century Comédie Humaine.
Whether you’re a fan of Maigret, or just a mystery genre enthusiast who’s new to Simenon’s works, you’ll find much to enjoy in this book. It’s simply a well-crafted, engaging whodunit.
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