Sometimes I am surprised that Georges Simenon’s work is not part of the university literature curriculum. After all, he did for France what Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain did for the United States and what G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and Josephine Tey did for Britain. Although he was a more prolific mystery writer than all the other above mentioned authors put together, his work could stand comparison with the best.
Inspector Maigret is a mystery in his own right. Unlike Edgar Allan Poe’s notion of a tale of ratiocination, Inspector Cadaver gives us a detective who absorbs with the help of intuition more than he reasons from dry facts. In fact, his case comes together when one of the characters, Alban Groult-Cotelle, quite unnecessarily, presents a receipt as alibi that he was not involved in a murder—before it was ever suspected that he was involved. Maigret’s response is classic: “Don’t you know … that there is a saying in the police force that he that has has the best alibi is all the more suspect?”
That starts the Inspector on a train of thought:
The minute he left the house, an idea had occurred to him. It was not even an idea, but something vaguer, so vague that he was now striving to recapture the memory of it. Every now and then, an insignificant occurrence, usually a whiff of something barely caught, reminds us in the space of a second of a particular moment in our life. It is such a vivid sensation that we are gripped by it and want to cling to this living reminder of that moment. It disappears almost at once and with it all recollection of the experience. Try as we might, we end up wondering, for want of an answer to our questions, if it was not an unconscious evocation of a dream, or, who knows, of some pre-existent world?
I love reading about Maigret’s train of thought, because it is not only unique in the genre, but fascinating as an expression of the French concept of débrouillage, working one’s way through a mental fog.
In a few pages more, we see some progress has been made:
At such moments, Maigret seemed to puff himself up out of all proportion and become slow-witted and stodgy, like someone blind and dumb who is unaware of what is going on around him. Indeed, if anyone not forewarned was to walk past or talk to Maigret when he was in one of these moods, he would more than likely take him for a fat idiot or a fat sleepyhead.
“So, you’re concentrating on your thoughts?” said someone who prided himself on his psychological perception.
And Maigret had replied with comic sincerity:
“I never think.”
And it was almost true. For Maigret was not thinking now, as he stood in the damp, cold street. He was not following through an idea. One might say he was rather like a sponge.
Try to get Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe to admit to something like this! He never thinks, and the facts come to him the way a sponge absorbs water. What Maigret does is allow the patterns to form by themselves in his mind. Then, he is ready to pounce!
Inspector Cadaver was published in 1944 during the War in a France under German occupation, and its atmosphere of grimness partakes of the time. And yet, and yet, Simenon, whenever he sets a tale in the provinces, creates an intriguing combination of ugly weather and pompous, ugly characters.