Anything but a conventional mystery
Like a latter-day Balzac, Simenon’s novels allow the reader to become intimately acquainted with the myriad cultures and classes of French society. This novel offers a glimpse into the lives of the homeless who live underneath the bridges that cross the Seine. According to Maigret, not much trouble usually arises from this subculture, but one of these Parisian bums has been victimized. For no apparent reason, one homeless man was attacked in his sleep, brutally struck on the head, and tossed into the river. He survived the incident after being fished out of the water by two bargemen. The victim remains unconscious in the hospital, however, unable to tell what happened to him. Like Maigret’s earlier mystery Lock 14, this novel also provides a glimpse into the culture of those families who live on barges and make their living transporting freight through France’s network of canals.
Given Maigret’s usual slate of heinous crimes, this bum-rolling attempted murder may not seem like a high-priority case, but it has piqued the inspector’s curiosity, and he is determined to uncover the motive behind this crime. After some investigation, Maigret finds that the homeless man was a former doctor who abandoned a wealthy lifestyle, perhaps due to mental illness, and chose to live as a vagrant. As is often the case with Maigret mysteries, the crime itself is not as important in the narrative as the motive behind it. Simenon’s primary concern is human psychology—why people commit crimes. Over the course of the novel, Maigret uncovers the back story of this enigmatic bum, as well as the secret pasts of the various suspects. Some of the conclusions Maigret comes up with seem like a bit of a stretch. It’s not entirely explained how he comes up with all the answers he does. Maybe more of his investigative process could have been revealed to the reader at times, but the investigation never oversteps the bounds of realism.
Nothing about this amounts to a conventional mystery. The details of the police procedural seem almost mundane, and Maigret is not so much a heroic detective as a curious voyeur, a sleuthing bulldog who burrows into the dirt of people’s lives until they crack under the strain. The resolution of the mystery is not formulaic either and tends to break some of the standard rules of detective fiction. Perhaps the fact that Simenon wrote so many books gave him the opportunity to experimentally scoff at the templates of the crime genre without worrying about disappointing his audience. If they don’t like this book, the next one will be something very different. In this case, the unconventionality works in the book’s favor, and the psychological authenticity of the characters makes up for any lack of romantic gumshoe heroics.
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