This was my first ever Maigret book. I bought it because I loved the cover – which is an odd reason given that I read the Kindle version where no one but me sees the cover.
I opened it hoping for Christmas-themed crime with a French flavour, meaning something that managed to be nostalgic but avoided saccharine sentimentality. Georges Simenon exceeded my expectations on all counts.
The book contains three short stories: “A Maigret Christmas”, “Seven Small Crosses In A Notebook” and “A Little Restaurant Near Place Des Ternes”. I’d expected to find a strong Maigret story to anchor the book and then two “And Other Stories” to pad things out. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stories got better as the went along, with the final story being my favourite.
“A Maigret Christmas”
“A Maigret Christmas” was my first meeting with Maigret. I found him to be a gentle, slightly melancholy man who knows himself well enough to understand that he will not change and holds himself to account enough to know that this is something he must sometimes make amends for.
The story takes place on Christmas Day which Maigret intends to spend quietly at home with his wife. It becomes clear that, for Maigret and his wife, spending such a day will require kindness and resolve from both of them.
I was impressed with and puzzled by how clearly and economically Simenon draws the relationship between Maigret and his wife. We don’t get inside Maigret’s head or anyone else’s. I don’t even know his wife’s first name, although she’s present throughout the story. And yet there is a strong sense of intimacy, of the kind where you can recognise someone from the shape of the back of their head or by hearing them cough.
Simenon creates this intimate picture through small details that come together when seen from a distance, like a pointillist painting. For example, even though Maigret knows his wife has slipped quietly from their apartment in the early hours in order to fetch coffee and croissant to serve to him in bed, and that this token of her affection is important to her, he cannot bring himself to stay in bed until his wife’s return.
Simenon shows that between Maigret and his wife there is love and loyalty but there is also regret, perhaps even grief, strong enough that it cannot be spoken of without pain, for the absence of a child in their lives. Their marriage echoes with the lack of a child.
Maigret’s wife is quietly and determinedly but modestly hopeful. I was left with the impression that Maigret draws heavily on her strength and feels himself unable adequately to offer his strength in return.
Simenon describes Paris of the 1950s vividly and with deep affection. It’s a Paris that is very different from the one I know but one who’s bones can still be seen beneath the skin of Paris as it is now. Here’s how he describes the arrival of fog on Christmas Day:
“Thick yellowish fog had suddenly blanketed Paris, which is quite rare. The lights were on in all the buildings; from one end of the boulevard to the other, all of the windows looked like distant ships’ lanterns; the details of everyday reality were blurred to the point where, had they been at the sea’s edge, passers-by would have expected to hear the boom of a foghorn. ”
Of course, crime was bound to intrude on Maigret’s Christmas. Early on Christmas morning, Maigret, at the request of his neighbours, is drawn into an investigation of the appearance, on Christmas Eve, of Santa Claus in a little girl’s bedroom in an apartment across the street from Maigret’s own.
Working largely from his home, Maigret relentlessly uncovers the sinister background to this event, catches the evil-doers and arranges, at his wife’s barely voiced but deeply felt plea, to take care of the little girl, at least for a while.
It’s a masterful piece of storytelling and made me keen to try one of the Maigret novels. I’m going to start with “The Yellow Dog”
“Seven Small Crosses In A Notebook”
This is a police story but doesn’t have Maigret in it. It seems to me that Simenon set himself a difficult challenge in this story: how do you deliver and solve a tense mystery during two continuous shifts of the Paris police control room, starting on the Christmas Eve night shift and going through the next morning, without ever leaving the four walls of the control room?
He does it by bringing to life Lecoeur, a police officer in the control room who is given the chance of a lifetime to apply his detailed knowledge of Paris police districts, his meticulous record-keeping and information gathered by living for decades in the same neighbourhood, to identify and solve a crime.
The plot is ingenious and original. The pacing is perfect. The now-long-gone environment of control room filled with a map and telephone sockets and people with headphones is made vivid and exciting.
What I liked most was the way the unravelling of each twist in the plot puzzle served to give a deeper insight into Lecoeur’s mind and into his family history. I felt I knew Lecoeur (the heart of policing?) by the end of the story. He is a man who has turned the police control room into a refuge where the little crosses he places in his notebook to track the calls he takes give him the ability to impose order on the chaos of the Paris night. Here his discipline and focus give him control and value that is denied him in other areas of his life.
“A Little Restaurant Near Place Des Ternes”
This is my favourite of the three stories. It’s subtitled “A Christmas Story For Grown-Ups”. This isn’t a “Miracle On 34th Street” kind of Christmas fable. This is grounded in the reality of Christmas in the big city as experienced by the marginalised or excluded. If Edward Hopper had set “Nighthawks” in Paris on Christmas Eve, he might have painted “A LIttle Restaurant Near Place Des Ternes”.
This is the story of Long-Tall-Jeanne’s Christmas Eve, which starts with a very public suicide and ends in the police lock-up. Jeanne is a prostitute who has taken Christmas Eve off, intending to take a quiet supper in a local café and then go back to her room alone. The night doesn’t go that way and Jeanne finds herself playing reluctant guardian angel to another girl.
This is a very unsentimental story and yet, in its way, it has more Christmas spirit in it than any Hallmark movie.
Now that I know how good Simenon’s non-Maigret stories are, I’m planning to read “The Snow Was Dirty”, a novel set in Nazi-occupied France.