Friday, June 10, 2016
The Saint-Fiacre Affair by Georges Simenon
When is a murder not a murder?
The Saint-Fiacre Affair is the 13th entry in Belgian author Georges Simenon’s series of Inspector Maigret detective novels. Originally published in 1932 as L’Affaire Saint-Fiacre, the book has also appeared in English translation under the titles of Maigret Goes Home, Maigret on Home Ground, Maigret and the Countess, and Death of a Countess. Of the 11 Maigret novels that I’ve read so far, I would have to say this is the least satisfying of the bunch.
Detective Chief Inspector Jules Maigret of the Police Judiciaire receives an anonymous letter at his office in Paris indicating that a crime will be committed during a church service in the small town of Saint-Fiacre, near Moulins. Though such a vague threat and possible wild-goose chase hardly seems worthy of police resources, Maigret chooses to investigate the matter because of a personal connection to the town. He was born in Saint-Fiacre, where his father served as estate manager for the count and countess of the local chateau. While Maigret is present at the mass in question, the aged countess of Saint-Fiacre drops dead in her pew. As predicted, a murder has taken place, and Maigret sets about finding the killer.
A homecoming for Maigret is a very intriguing idea, as I hoped it would shed some light on this enigmatic character’s past. The reader gets a few brief glimpses into the inspector’s youth, but not as much as one would hope. The setting, however, does allow for some interesting exploration of class relations. The citizens of this small town still figuratively bow in deference to the noble family of the chateau, even as they’re headed for financial and moral bankruptcy. Regardless of the count and countess’s faults and disgraces, the residents of Saint-Fiacre still treat them as aristocrats, almost as if they were beloved mascots of the community’s feudal past. The family’s fortunes and foibles are the town’s as well.
The big problem with this murder mystery is that technically there’s really no murder. The cause of death, as all the characters in the story admit, is not a crime prosecutable by law. More importantly, the fact that a person could be killed in this way is questionable, but the idea that a person could be killed in this way with enough certainty to predict the “crime” beforehand is ridiculous. From this dubious beginning, the story just kind of limps along for a while as we get to know the seven or eight suspects. The novel definitely improves toward the end, however. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 are riveting, with a gradual crescendo of suspense and one true I-didn’t-see-it-coming moment. Simenon engenders further disappointment, however, by allowing one of the supporting characters to do most of the detective work and essentially solve the mystery, while Maigret merely serves as a spectator.
The dialogue in the book is frequently frustrating because it consists entirely of quotes without attribution, so one often has to read two or three times to figure out who’s talking to whom. The characters speak in choppy, incomplete sentences, leaving the reader to guess what exactly they’re getting at, though that may be the fault of the translator rather than the author. Although I generally like the Maigret novels, and I’ve read a few great ones (The Late Monsieur Gallet, The Night at the Crossroads, A Man’s Head), this one is just OK at best.
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