Monday, April 28, 2014

Maigret and the Killer by Georges Simenon

Not the usual suspects
Maigret and the Killer is one of the last books in Georges Simenon’s series of Inspector Maigret mystery novels, being the 98th installment out of 103 appearances by the Parisian detective. It was originally published in 1969 under the French title of Maigret et la tueur. Despite the fact that it was written 38 years after its title character’s debut, Simenon apparently hasn’t run out of ideas, and Maigret hasn’t lost any steam. Out of the half dozen Maigret novels I’ve read so far, this may be the best one yet.

Maigret and his wife are dining at the home of friends, Dr and Mme Pardon, when their evening is interrupted by Pardon’s neighbor, an Italian grocer. He has witnessed a stabbing in the street outside and asks the doctor for medical assistance. Pardon and Maigret rush out in the pouring rain, but the victim is already dead. The murdered young man is found with a tape recorder around his neck. When his family is questioned, it is revealed that he had a passion for recording random voices in public places. Maigret suspects that he may have recorded an incriminating conversation and paid for it with his life.

The Maigret novels are consistently good, but I can’t say I’ve ever been truly blown away by one. The same holds true for this installment, but it did manage to grab my attention from page one and keep me hooked all the way through. Simenon avoids cliché potboiler conventions in favor of a more realistic detective procedural. You won’t find any shootouts, chase scenes, or gratuitous action sequences, but the mystery is sufficiently mysterious and intellectually challenging. This book doesn’t follow the typical genre template with a big shocking reveal at the end. Simenon is not concerned so much with creating nail-biting suspense as he is with examining the psychology of crime—why people kill and what it does to them. Despite the fact that this book was written over 40 years ago—and we’ve seen a lot of killers in literature and film over the past four decades—this tale of murder is still fresh and original. Even the savviest of today’s thriller junkies have rarely seen the interplay between cop and killer rendered so sensitively as this. The ending is quite moving, but like many a good Simenon novel it doesn’t inspire shock or surprise so much as it does a deep pathos and an unsettling discomfort.

In the other Maigret novels I’ve read, Madame Maigret has been almost entirely absent, but in this one Maigret goes home to his wife every night, and she’s a constant presence in the story. This gives the reader a closer look into the human side of the detective that is welcome and refreshing. Maigret also interacts with his subordinate detectives in a much more amiable manner than I’ve seen in the past. In this novel he seems to have mellowed with age and become less of a curmudgeon.

Any fan of the Maigret books should definitely read Maigret and the Killer. Even though this one takes place pretty late in the game, I would also recommend it as an introduction to Maigret for those who have never read Simenon’s work. It aptly demonstrates the author’s mastery of the detective story, while also serving as an example of what separates his mysteries from those of more conventional writers in the genre.
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