Monday, June 4, 2018

Inspector Maigret in New York’s Underworld by Georges Simenon

Retirement doesn’t suit him here
Inspector Maigret in New York’s Underworld was originally published in 1947 under the simpler title of Maigret in New York. Of the 103 Maigret novels and short stories by author Georges Simenon, this book was the 50th, putting it at about the middle of the pack chronologically. Even so, in this book Maigret is already retired from his job as Inspector with the Police Judiciaire in Paris and acting purely as a private citizen. This is the 14th Maigret novel that I’ve read, and I’ve given the rest favorable reviews. Maigret in New York, however, is the worst Maigret book I’ve read so far.

While adjusting to retirement in suburban Paris, Maigret is consulted by a young man of 19, Jean Maura, the son of a wealthy French-born businessman residing in America. Based on troubling letters he has recently received from his father and odd financial transactions made through the family attorney, Jean fears that his father, who goes by the American name of John Maura, may be in danger. Maigret agrees to accompany Jean to America to investigate. When the ship arrives in New York, however, Jean Maura immediately disappears. Maigret goes to see John Maura, but is perturbed by the father’s lack of concern over his son’s unexplained disappearance. Maigret resolves to find out what has happened to young Jean. With the help of a colleague in the NYPD, he starts to investigate and turns up some suspicious stories about the father’s past.

While Simenon novels frequently hook me from page one, this was a hard one to get into. The very premise of the book is faulty to begin with. Maigret, who has never been to America, is going to cross the ocean on account of the vague fears of a teenager he’s never met before? After that unlikely beginning, it seems to take forever before a crime is committed. I never really felt invested in the story until around chapter seven or eight (out of ten), and even then it was only halfheartedly compelling. Despite the addition of the word Underworld to spice up the title, the reader doesn’t get to experience much of the seedy underbelly of society or the gangsters that such a word implies. Instead, Maigret spends his time interviewing elderly circus performers. Other than that, the detective doesn’t really do much detective work at all. Almost everything he learns about the characters and their crimes is handed to him, either by police officers who acquired the information by means left unsaid or by drunks who happened to be feeling confessional.

Mystery novels, Maigret’s included, often end with all the important characters gathered together for a big reveal. The odd way that scene is conducted in this novel, however, is quite anticlimactic and unsatisfying, not to mention difficult to decipher. When it comes to dialogue, Simenon is king of the ellipsis dots. In real life people don’t always speak in complete sentences, but in Maigret novels they almost never do, and the reader is often frustratingly left to fill in the chunks that Simenon chose to leave out. The back story that’s revealed has its share of unexpected twists, as well as the characteristic psychological pathos one comes to expect from a Simenon novel, but the way it is told is just awkward and stultifying.

Simenon was a great writer, but a man who is rumored to have written 500 novels can’t be expected to crank out a winner every time, and he didn’t with Maigret in New York. It’s not a terrible read for mystery fans, but it’s disappointingly mediocre by Simenon standards.
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