Friday, November 27, 2015

The Late Monsieur Gallet by Georges Simenon

Excellent early Maigret
The Late Monsieur Gallet, published in 1931, is the third volume in Belgian author Georges Simenon’s series of mystery novels featuring Inspector Jules Maigret, though the recent line of reprints from Penguin Classics has it as book number two in their series. Originally titled M. Gallet décédé, it has also been published in English under the titles The Death of Monsieur Gallet and Maigret Stonewalled. In all Simenon wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories starring Maigret. I’ve read about ten of the Maigret novels so far, and this is the best one I’ve come across so far.

Maigret is Detective Chief Inspector with the Police Judiciaire in Paris. On a stifling hot summer day, he gets a telegram informing him that a traveling salesman named Émile Gallet has been found murdered at a hotel in Sancerre, a town on the Loire River. Maigret is tasked, much to his chagrin, with travelling to Saint-Fargeau, a town about 20 miles from Paris, informing Madame Gallet of her husband’s demise, and escorting her to Sancerre to identify the body. The widow greets Maigret’s notification of her husband’s death with disbelief, because he was murdered on June 25th, while she has received a postcard from him postmarked on the 26th. Unable to convince her, the reluctant Maigret drags the doubtful woman off to view the corpse. Once they arrive in Sancerre, details begin to emerge that suggest that the mysterious M. Gallet was not all he appeared to be.

Simenon handles this case with expert pacing and plotting. The more Maigret delves into the case, the more baffling details reveal themselves. Surprising revelations are rationed over the course of the book, so the reader is always just one step behind the truth. Some mystery novelists save up too many surprises for the big reveal at the end, causing the reader to become disoriented and disinterested. Not so, Simenon. He leaves the reader just enough of a trail of bread crumbs to see where the path of Maigret’s investigation is leading, but not enough to discern the final destination until the very end. The characters are both realistic and intriguing. There’s no shortage of sufficiently shady suspects among Gallet’s associates, and as is often the case in Maigret’s adventures, the dead man is the most engaging and sympathetic player in the ensemble cast.

This brisk 150-page mystery had me hooked from chapter one until the final page. It’s superior to the two volumes that preceded it—Pietr the Latvian and Lock 14—so if you’ve never read Maigret before and are thinking about giving him a try, this may be a good one to start with. It’s an excellent example of Simenon at his best.
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