Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Adventure classics -- Case of the little white hat

Madame Maigret’s Own Case

by Georges Simenon


I’m embarrassed to admit I only knew Georges Simenon from his Inspector Maigret stories. With more than eighty stories about the gruff, pipe-smoking Maigret to his credit, Simenon might have excused my ignorance of the rest of his work. And with many of his earliest novels published under pseudonyms, “no one seems to know precisely how many book-length titles he published,“ Joyce Carol Oates writes in her introduction to what was to have been this week’s book, the non-Maigret Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, “but the estimate of four hundred-plus seems plausible.”

It’s a body of work that impresses even Oates, no writing slouch herself, with more than forty novels, some of them also written under pseudonyms, as well as dozens of volumes of short stories and essays.

“Universal to Simenon’s work,” Oates continues, “is a concentration on behavior that might be considered obsessive.”

And Simenon knew obsessive. Besides his stupendous literary output, he estimated he had had sexual relations with 10,000 women, including his two wives. For most of us, keeping track of the sex would be a fulltime job, but for Simenon, writing always came first. He was said to have broken off one of his most famous affairs, with African-American dancer Josephine Baker, because he thought she distracted him from work -- he only wrote twelve novels the year he and Baker were together. (Lest I sound too gossipy, realize that Simenon dished out twenty-seven volumes of autobiography.)

So back to Maigret, who by comparison with his creator seems incredibly normal -- one job and one wife, who got a single chance to shine in today’s Adventure classic selection, Madame Maigret’s Own Case. (Reissued under the title The Friend of Madame Maigret.)

As far as I can determine, although I’m willing to be corrected, this is the only volume in which Maigret’s wife plays a part more significant than keeping her police inspector husband properly fed. In a nod to her usual role, it opens with its own succulent recipe -- “The chicken was on the stove, with a fine red carrot, a big onion, and a bunch of parsley with the stems sticking out.”

Then Madame Maigret is off to a dental appointment near Place d’Anvers, chatting with a “nice” foreign woman who has a little boy and a chic spring hat, and who just may be involved in a theft-kidnapping-murder ring. Madame Maigret provides the vital bit of information with charming insouciance, tracking a criminal by tracking down her hat.

“I knew it wasn’t a hat from a really first-class milliner,” Madame Maigret tells her husband after a day of sleuthing. “I did all the little shops, especially around Place d’Anvers -- or not too far away. I saw at least a hundred white hats.”

Some may argue that Maigret would have solved the case he started with -- a bookbinder accused of burning a body in his furnace -- without his wife’s help. Hoping not to spoil too much for those who haven’t already read it, I’ll just ask -- without Madame Maigret, would he ever have learned about Countess Panetti and her no-good son-in-law? Or connected the countess’s death with the hypothetical body in the bookbinder’s ash heap?

I think not. And all because of a little white hat, which would have been my choice for a title. Although perhaps a subtitle should add, “with a tiny veil, three or four fingers wide, that came down just over the eyes.”

The Maigret novels are the most widely-available of Simenon’s books in English translation, at Amazon and other sites. For more about Maigret and his wife, the Strand Magazine article “The Great Detectives: Maigret” provides a quick overview, including first names, the physical descriptions Simenon’s works are notably short on, and of course, fashion sense. See

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues an April of mysteries with one of Arthur Upfield’s best Australian Aborigine mysteries, The Bone is Pointed.)

No comments:

Post a Comment