The Unthinking Detective

Belgian-Born Mystery Writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989)

The following is a slightly modified reprint of a posting from March 3, 2013. I have just finished reading Georges Simenon’s Maigret and the Killer and decided to look up a five-year-old review of an earlier Maigret novel.

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, P. D. James, 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.

 

Very Old Water

Lower Emerald Pool at Zion National Park

This is a re-post from the visit Martine and I made to the National Parks of Utah in 2007. Minor changes have been made to this post originally dated October 4, 2007.

We were on a walk and ride with one of Zion’s park rangers when we learned an interesting fact. As we stood at a viewpoint looking at little-visited Menu Falls, the ranger explained that the water seeping from the sandstone cliffs had taken a long journey from the top of the cliff down to where it descended to the Virgin River. In fact, it took 2,000 years.

When the water that poured out of the cliffs along their base appeared as rain on the Colorado Plateau, Caesar Augustus was Emperor of Rome and Jesus Christ still walked the earth.

The sandstone that formed the cliffs of Zion National Park was formed from massive dunes that once covered the area. Then the area was under water some 260 million years ago, part of prehistoric Lake Claron. Calcium carbonate from the water seeped down to the sand and helped cement it into sandstone, along with the massive weight of the lake itself, so that millions of years later, it served as a slow and massive sponge that soaked up rainfall and sent it on a long, slow journey until it reached the base of the cliff two millenia later.

Illustrated above is another one of those falls, at Lower Emerald Pool. In the extreme heat of Zion, Martine and I rested on a boulder with the deep shade and stray drops of cool (and very old) water helping us keep comfortable. The ranger had also mentioned that the sandstone purified the water in the process, but Martine and I had cool water in our canteens. I always take the precaution of leaving our canteens in the freezer so that we can be refreshed later in the day during our hikes.