Friday, July 31, 2020
The Hotel Majestic by Georges Simenon
Too many unconnected dots
The Hotel Majestic is the 41st work of detective fiction in Belgian author Georges Simenon’s series of Inspector Maigret mysteries. The novel was originally published in 1942 under the French title of Les Caves du Majestic, and it has also been translated into English as The Cellars of the Majestic or Maigret and the Hotel Majestic. The “Cellars” or “Caves” refers to the kitchens and storerooms in the basement of the hotel. The translation by David Watson uses the term “still-room,” which is where coffee, tea, and food are prepared for guests and sent to the upper floors through a dumb waiter. As the book opens, Prosper Donge, who runs the still-room at the Hotel Majestic, arrives for work one morning and discovers a dead body stuffed into a locker, or so he claims. Maigret investigates the murder, and Prosper Donge becomes the prime suspect.
The victim of the crime is the French-born wife of a wealthy American industrialist, both traveling in Paris on business. It is soon revealed that the woman was a former hostess at a nightclub in Cannes, and some of her associates there, now living in Paris, may have been connected with the crime. The American husband is no angel himself, and he lives up to the stereotype of the ugly, entitled American, resulting in some humorous confrontations with Maigret.
The Hotel Majestic sports an interesting cast of characters, and the murder plot itself is well thought out, but the way Simenon tells the story leaves something to be desired. Part of the fun in reading detective fiction is trying to solve the puzzle yourself. On a few occasions in this novel, however, Maigret is privy to information to which the frustrated reader does not have access, which leaves one feeling a little cheated. Early in the book, for example, Maigret asks someone about a baby, and the reader wonders, “How does he know they had a baby?” Names of persons or businesses are mentioned once in passing conversation; then later in the book they become major plot elements when Maigret reveals an entire back story, gleaned from his years of police experience, unbeknownst to the confused reader.
My least favorite aspect of Simenon’s writing is the way he pens dialogue. He composes conversations in fragmentary sentences, interspersed with numerous ellipsis dots ( . . . ). This is intended to reproduce the feeling of actual speech, but in real life people are usually capable of expressing complete thoughts. You would think a police officer interrogating a suspect, in particular, would want to nail down clear and accurate statements. Instead, every one of Simenon’s ellipsis dots represents something the reader has to fill in with inferences or assumptions, which often leads to misunderstanding. The Hotel Majestic seems to have even more of these ambiguous pauses than is typical of Simenon, which contributes to the feeling that the mystery plot has too many unconnected dots.
One thing that usually sets the Maigret mysteries apart from typical detective fiction is the pathos with which Simenon depicts the supporting characters. Here, however, both Simenon and Maigret seem to have little sympathy for The Hotel Majestic’s criminals, suspects, and victims. The result is a competently crafted story that lacks feeling. The Maigret series as a whole is worthwhile reading, but this is not one of its more compelling entries. Of the 14 that I’ve read so far, my favorites are The Night at the Crossroads and The Late Monsieur Gallet.
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