I do like it when a crime novel takes the reader somewhere unusual. A mystery with a twist that is something off the usual beaten path. With such a prolific writer like Georges Simenon, who wrote more than seventy Inspector Maigret novels and many many more psychological crime novels that stand on their own, you tend to expect something more formulaic and expected. I was pleasantly surprised and pleased with The Saint-Fiacre Affair (La Messe de Saint-Fiacre published originally in 1932 and translated by Shaun Whiteside in 2014). It is a mystery that unravels itself with Inspector Maigret almost an innocent bystander. In this Maigret outing he is a witness to a crime. Actually he was invited to witness a crime! By the end of the story he was beginning to become a little bit peeved, as though "he had been left out of the play"!
"Never in his career had Maigret felt so uneasy. And it was probably the first time that he had a very clear sense that he was not a match for the situation."
Imagine a detective admitting that to himself! But I think I am getting a little ahead of myself.
You know that Inspector Maigret is an official policeman, a detective in the Police Judiciare in Paris. One day he receives a note, written most meticulously telling him:
"I wish to inform you that a crime will be committed at the church of Sain-Fiacre during the first mass on All Souls' Day."
It would not be surprising that any other policeman would have simply dismissed such a note as a joke. But there is something particular about Saint-Fiacre. Saint-Fiacre--Matignon--Moulins. He knows this little village intimately as you see, he was born there. Saint-Fiacre is not just a village, but it is also a family name. The family who gave their name to this village. And the place where Maigret's father had been estate manager of the chateau for some thirty years. It has perhaps been that long since Maigret has been to Moulins. And this note, with its promise of a crime to be committed is enough to draw him back.
The crime? But, is it a crime? Maigret goes to early mass on All Souls Day to witness a crime. And there is a death. And a body. And he does witness this death. But there is no killer. So, the facts:
The Countess of Saint-Fiacre was in attendance of the first mass of the day. She sits alone in her pew, missal in hand, following the service. And at the end . . . 'ite miss est' . . . 'the mass has been said." And she continues to sit there, head in hands. She is motionless, does not get up. The rest of the congregants file out, the sacristan snuffs out the candles, and still she sits there. Maigret moves towards her, taps her shoulder and she slumps over all of a sudden as though nothing at all had been holding her up.
The Countess Saint-Fiacre. Dead! No gunshot. No one (save Maigret) touched her, no one even passed by her. It would seem her death is not even caused by poison, which would show up in the blood. Death by heart attack? She is an older woman. So not a death at all? But chance? Natural causes. So has there even been a crime?
The circumstances? A few details that are worth noting. The Countess has one son who no longer resides at the chateau. She is a widow with a penchant for younger men. Younger men, like her secretary. As a child Maigret thought of her as a model of good behavior, the epitome of "femininity, grace and nobility". But after the death of the Count, you know how it goes with these women whose sons leave for school and they turn forty and then forty-five, and then . . . Well, a series of secretaries. Male secretaries. And the chateau is mortgaged up to its rafters.
The suspects? Who has something to gain by the death of the Countess? There are five individuals who gravitated towards the Countess. Five men who might just have a reason to want her dead.
The dissolute son who lives in Paris with his Russian mistress and who has conveniently just arrived with the intention of asking for more money to pay off debts. The secretary who was also her lover. The estate manager who has devoted his life to the running of the estate and now watches as it runs into ruin. His son, who has worked with his father and has advanced solely by merit and hard work, and who had possibly filled the position now taken up by the secretary as the Countess's 'intimate'. And the parish priest whose ardent faith may have driven him to extremes, to avoid cause for scandal in the village.
Clues or red herrings to consider: The missing missal, which was in the Countess's hands but which has disappeared. A newspaper clipping. The fact that a crime committed in a church must be reconsecrated by the bishop. Has there been a crime or not, and how does it affect the status of the church.
For such a slender novel (just under 150 pages) and in such a small village and a crime that might not even be a crime, what a wonderfully dramatic story. One that Maigret attends to without actually solving as such. A most illuminating dinner party takes place at the chateau that will shed light on the death of the Countess, with the promise of perhaps another murder. Maigret may only be a witness of sorts, but he holds the final puzzle piece as is only to be expected.
Like Miss Marple, Inspector Maigret is one of the greats. I forgot how much I like him and enjoy Simenon's stories. There is more Maigret here (with links to the other stories by Simenon I have read--including a Paris mystery and one he solved in Holland). I hope to raid my pile of French mysteries again very soon.