Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Man’s Head by Georges Simenon

A confounding puzzle and a thrilling ride
Joseph Heurtin, convicted murderer and death row inmate at the Santé prison, receives a note with instructions for a prison break. Following the directions in the note, Heurtin leaves his cell, scales the wall, and flees the scene. Little does he know that the unknown benefactor behind the mysterious note is none other than Inspector Maigret, the police detective who originally handled his case. Despite overwhelming evidence in favor of Heurtin’s guilt, Maigret has never been convinced that he acted alone. Maigret engineers the prison break, keeping Heurtin under surveillance, in hopes of discovering the real mastermind behind the crime. What’s at stake is whether or not the wrong man will go to the guillotine, or, as Maigret puts it, it’s a question of a man’s head. The Examining Magistrate in the case, Monsieur Coméliau, gives his permission for this operation, but does not have much confidence in Maigret’s plan. When things go bad and Heurtin eludes the police, Maigret’s career is on the line. If he wants to keep his job, he has ten days to apprehend Heurtin and discover who is really responsible for the murders.

A Man’s Head was originally published in 1931 under the French title of La Tête d’un Homme, and has appeared in English under the alternate titles A Battle of Nerves, Maigret's War of Nerves, and The Patience of Maigret. It is the fifth novel in this series of detective novels by Georges Simenon. Though the Maigret books are often unconventional in style and structure, relying more on atmosphere and character development than on the mechanics of detection, this one for the most part sticks to the basic format of mystery novels that began with Sherlock Holmes and continues to this day. The penultimate chapter features the requisite big reveal in which Maigret explains how all the various happenings of the preceding chapters fit into one big ingenious jigsaw puzzle. Sticking to convention doesn’t hurt the book at all, for Simenon is quite successful at working within the prescribed rules of the genre when it suits him. The plot is more than sufficiently intricate to confound the reader. This is one Maigret mystery that truly mystifies. Also, for once Maigret faces a formidable adversary with whom he can verbally and intellectually spar. The “villain,” for lack of a better word, is a devilishly clever mastermind who enjoys playing with Maigret’s head. In the tradition of the genre he lies somewhere between Professor Moriarity and the psychos of today’s serial killer movies who can never seem to commit a crime without seeking affirmation from the police.

A Man’s Head is a captivating ride, and a satisfying read. The entire book can be read in under two hours, and once you get started, you won’t want to stop. Of the few Maigret novels I’ve read so far, this is the best of the bunch, and it leaves me looking forward to reading more.

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