A French observer in Arizona
For starters, Jules Maigret, inspector for the Police Judiciaire of Paris, spends the whole novel in America. Maigret is on a training trip to the USA to observe the methods and techniques of various American police departments. It’s really more like a goodwill tour in which his American counterparts take him out for dinners and drinks. Maigret finds himself in Tucson, Arizona, where his American chaperone, an FBI agent, suggests he attend and observe a coroner’s inquest. Maigret is reluctant at first, but then becomes very involved as he watches the case unfold over the course of a few days.
A reputedly loose young woman has been found dead on a railroad track in the desert outside of town. The purpose of the inquest is to determine whether the death was an accident, or if there is sufficient evidence to bring a suspect to trial. On the night of her death, the woman had been partying with five military men from the local Air Force base. After much drinking and a drive out to the desert, the woman never returned. As Maigret listens, the five men recount their conflicting stories of the night’s events. The experienced French detective can’t help thinking how we would handle the case and the questions he would ask if he were running the proceedings.
Simenon is renowned for writing crime novels of great psychological authenticity, and his treatment of the characters and their motives in this book is no exception. Here, however, motives sometimes get lost amid a morass of minutiae. This is a far more detail-oriented mystery than any other Maigret case I’ve read. The story behind the woman’s death rests upon such matters as who got into what car at what time, and whose footprints were pointed in which direction. The reader sits through several different versions of these details, but it’s practically impossible to keep track of the specifics of all the testimony. The book even includes diagrams, but they don’t really help. The oddest thing about this novel, however, is that Maigret is really just a spectator at this hearing. He doesn’t do any investigative work or interrogate any suspects. Because Simenon is such a skilled crime writer, the mystery is very engaging, but one sometimes wonders why Maigret is even in this story at all.
The really compelling aspect of this book is Maigret’s internal commentary on American society. Simenon lived for about a decade in the U.S. and Canada, including at least a year in Arizona, so he had much opportunity to observe American life and culture, and, being a crime novelist, probably American law enforcement practices as well. Maigret finds America to be an astonishing land of plenty where even the poor people have cars, yet where many lead a rather depressing, morally bankrupt, and alcoholic existence. Through Maigret, Simenon delivers the Frenchman’s wry perspective on miscellaneous American customs, and what he notices is interesting and often funny to the American reader. Maigret at the Coroner’s is anything but a typical Maigret mystery, if there is such a thing, but, like just about everything Simenon wrote, this is an intriguing mystery and an absorbing read.
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