Maigret sits in judgement on the bourgeoisie of a small Breton town
I’m new to Maigret. “The Yellow Dog”, the sixth Maigret, is my first Maigret novel, so apart from what I read in “A Maigret Christmas And Other Stories” I came to this novel with no particular knowledge or expectations of Maigret as a person. Now that I’ve read the book, I still know very little about him but I know that I want to read more.
“The Yellow Dog” was recommended to me by Tigus at BookLikes as one of Georges Simenon’s best novels, so I skipped the first five books and started with Maigret, not in Paris but in a small Breton seaside town where he is investigating a shooting.
Yet the novel isn’t really about Maigret’s investigation. He’s not the kind of man who follows a rigorous process of generating hypotheses and checking them against the available evidence. He doesn’t share brilliant insights with the detective who is working under him. From time to time he will, if pressed, summarise the available facts in a way that makes it clear that, while there may be a basis for saying that it is very unlikely that certain individuals committed specific acts, there is no basis for saying who did commit them.
Of course, the fact that he states this does not mean that he believes it. Maigret is a man who judges people. He looks at them clearly and takes a view on who they are. He is not dispassionate in this. He is not objective. He judges based on his values and his impressions of people and then he waits to see if he can substantiate his judgements and hold those he sees as guilty to account.
What this novel is really about is Maigret’s profound distaste for the bourgeoise men who dominate this small, relatively poor, Breton town.
Yes, someone gets shot, then there is an attempt at poisoning, and a disappearance and the appearance of a giant of a man with tendency to violence and then another shooting but, in all of this, Maigret’s focus remains on three things: the group of wealthier-than-every-one-around-them men who see themselves as distinguished citizens and prove this to each other by eating and drinking each night at the only decent hotel in town, the face of the waitress who serves them and the recurring presence of an unknown yellow dog.
For me, Maigret’s focus became more of a puzzle than figuring out who committed the various acts of violence. I couldn’t understand what he was doing or what he was thinking. I slowly came to understand that Maigret is the camera lens through which Simenon presents the society in which the crimes are being committed. Like any good cameraman, Simenon shapes what we see before we are even aware of the conclusions we are being led to.
From the first chapter of the book, when Maigret enters the hotel and the distinguished gentlemen introduce themselves. I felt my lip curl at their smug entitlement and was taken aback by the casual misogyny at the heart of the story. The awful way the waitress is treated, including by Maigret, ought to have been a big deal but is was presented as if it was perfectly normal. At the time, I thought I was being distracted from the mystery by my annoyance at how obnoxious the men in the story were, Now I know that I was actually having my attention drawn to exactly what Georges Simenon wanted me to see.
I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of the story other than to say that it kept my attention, kept me guessing and gave me a clear picture of how working people could come to despise the idle but wealthy men who squat on the life of the town.
I did learn some things about Maigret. He resists authority other than his own. He is not a misogynist. He sees people clearly. He bides his time. He also acts on his own view of what is just. In this novel, Maigret sees himself as an instrument of justice rather than as an enforcer of the law. I rather liked him for that.
“The Yellow Dog” was published in 1931 but the writing feels very contemporary. This means that it provides a very accessible view of a France that is long gone. I know Brittany a little and it had never occurred to me that, in the 1930s, a relatively prosperous port might have unpaved streets that turned to mud in winter or that the women still wore the traditional Breton headdress. Its also gives a view of France that is still there, where Paris dominates, cronyism rules and the distribution of wealth ensures privilege for a few.
So, having had my first taste of George Simenon, I’ll be coming back for more both of his Maigret mysteries and his other novels.