Friday, August 24, 2012

Lock 14 by Georges Simenon

As much a tragedy as a mystery
This is one of the earliest entries in Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series of mysteries. It was originally published in 1931 under the French title of Le Charretier de “La Providence.” At Lock 14 in Dizy, near where the river Marne meets the canal of the same name, the body of a strangled woman is found lying amidst the straw on the floor of a stable. From her stylish dress she’s obviously a woman of some means, more at home in the fashionable milieu of Parisian society. What could have brought her to this obscure corner of the countryside, to end her days amongst the boatmen, the carters, and their horses? That’s what Maigret aims to find out. To do so he spends much of the book traveling up and down the canal line, chasing after barges, tugs, and yachts, to question the nomadic inhabitants of these vessels. At one point he even rides forty miles on a bicycle, presumably attired in suit, overcoat, and hat.

In many ways Maigret is the antithesis of the many literary detectives modeled after Sherlock Holmes. While the appeal of the Holmes mysteries relies heavily on the personality quirks of the hero, Maigret is almost an absolute cipher by comparison. Simenon gives us almost no description of his star detective whatsoever, other than he carries a pipe and likes to drink. The supporting characters are drawn much more vividly. Maigret doesn’t so much as investigate his suspects as act as their confessor. He relentlessly dogs the wayfarers of this aquatic crossroads until they eventually spill their guts to him. While most mystery authors write about murder like it’s a mathematical game or a jigsaw puzzle, Simenon treats crime as a shocking event that affects people’s lives. The psychological dimensions of the characters are far more important than the mental gymnastics required to solve the case. The ending of Lock 14 exudes a tragic pathos that transcends the typical emotional limitations of the mystery genre. By adding this psychological depth, Simenon brings the murder mystery out of the realm of escapist entertainment and into the scope of realist literature.

The setting of the book also resonates with a keen ring of truth. Simenon paints a vivid portrait of life along the canal. At the time the story takes place, some of the boats were motorized, but most of the barges were still pulled by horses walking along a towpath. At each stop, the boat pilots might have to park for days while waiting for their turn to traverse the lock. The local tavern becomes the center of their existence for the duration. The carters care for their horses, upon whom their livelihoods depend, with an almost brotherly devotion. The reader becomes immersed in the working and social lives of these laborers. For the American reader, it’s an unglamorized view of French life that the typical tourist would never experience. Simenon was an incredibly prolific author, and though I’ve only read a few of his works so far, I suspect that if one reads enough of his work one would find depicted the daily life of every region, every class, every walk of life in France. In that sense he’s like the Balzac of the early 20th century. The plot of Lock 14 may not be intricate enough to satisfy the most zealous mystery enthusiasts, but anyone interested in France and its literature will find the reading of this brief book well worth the time spent.

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