A week or so ago I shared a teaser from Georges Simenon's Maigret in Holland (Un Crime en Hollande translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury) and just as the TLS describes Simenon's style, so I found this wonderful and wonderfully atmospheric mystery. It's short, straightforward, not terribly complicated plotwise yet filled with enough red herrings and potential suspects to keep readers guessing and no political or historical markers which give the story a timeless quality even though it was published in 1940. His geographical descriptions of the coastal town of Delfzijl, however, are very inviting and part of the draw for me for this story. And Maigret is entirely likable. While the story may be morally ambiguous (certainly Simenon doesn't interject his own opinions), Maigret himself is quite sympathetic. Actually he's sympathetic but he has a certain mischievous streak to him at times, too, which I find amusing.
I've not read many of Simenon's Maigret novels, but of the few I have read there always seems to be a no-nonsense approach to the writing and plotting. Crime novels seem to be the perfect place to show a society's ills, reveal its shortcomings. You can tell a lot about a society from the crimes that are committed and by whom. And it's often not confined to the seedy underbelly of a city. Sometimes the detective or crime-solver is just as flawed as the criminals. But with Maigret you get a crime, you get a piecing together of a puzzle and a little traditional sleuthing. Maigret, however, relies as much on his gut feeling as on his close attention to the details of the crime, his observations and sorting through the clues to make it all fit together to get a satisfying resolution. As for Maigret's life--I can't tell you much. He smokes a pipe, likes to indulge a bit occasionally on a good meal and a few glasses of spirits. I know from my other reading that he is married and has a good relationship with his wife, but Simenon doesn't spend a lot of time on the personal (except perhaps to draw a picture of the suspects and their motivations).
I think what's important in the Maigret stories is presenting a problem, in this case murder, looking at it from all angles, sorting the clues and the personalities and the motives and facts and then solving the crime. A very basic, traditional mystery--but presented in a wholly entertaining way. Maigret has been called to Holland from Paris to aid in the investigation of a murder. A local man has been killed and the most obvious suspect happens to be a fellow Frenchman. He very inconveniently found himself holding the gun which killed the man thereby putting himself under suspicion. Curiously he had just given a lecture on the responsibility of criminals for their actions and has his own ideas of who killed the man and sets out his own ideas on who the killer is and how the crime was committed. He's not the only potential suspect of course.
The murdered man was a former sailor now settled down with a cultured and conventional wife. He had a penchant for attractive young women (perhaps he settled down too soon without sowing his wild oats in full?), though only dabbling really. He happened to have been dabbling with a local girl who is known for her flirtatiousness. As a matter of fact a young cadet who was one of the murdered man's students is in love with her. Then there is the murdered man's sister-in-law who has just finished her studies to become a lawyer who seems forever in a state of taciturnity, and the owner of a ship who's cap has inexplicably been discovered in the dead man's bathtub.
No mystery worth its salt is complete without a hoard of secrets and lies. So many suspects, so many motives and opportunities and a sprinkling of clues--love letters, a sailor's cap where it shouldn't be, a stray cigar butt and the light from a lighthouse which illuminates more than just the coastline. Maigret is up to the challenge, however, and in true Porot-like fashion he re-creates the murder scene with all the players in place and deconstructs the crime. The Dutch detectives are no match for Maigret's sleuthing prowess despite his 'unofficial' capacity in the case.
Since I read this as much for the setting as for the mystery, I would be remiss if I didn't share a few of the interesting cultural bits that I came across--keeping in mind of course that the book was published in 1940, so perhaps life has changed considerably in the passing years.
"The schnapps was drawn from a porcelain tap with brass fittings. It was that which gave the place its pervading odor, as it did every other café in the Netherlands, and which was so very different from any café in France."
"The evening before, he had dinner at the table next to the professor's. But now three places had been laid on the round table in the middle of the room. The tablecloth was snowy white and the creases had not yet gone flat. Moreover, three glasses had been set for each person, and that was a thing done only on grand occasions in Holland."
"In Holland we never drink with meals, only afterward. In the course of the evening--that is, at large repceptions--they serve a small glass of wine with the cigars . . . Another point on which we differ from you: we never put bread on he table."
"It's the very embodiment of cleanliness and order."
I've wanted to read more Maigret for ages and this was only a brief foray into his world. I'll be back for more. Maigret in Holland is doing double duty for me. It's not only the next spot to be filled in my Vintage Bingo card (three more to go to fill my row and get 'bingo'--this one is for the 'one mystery set other than the US or England slot) but is my last 'formal' book in my summer Reading the Netherlands project. I've got a couple of books left that will spill over into the end of the year, but I'll be wrapping things up this weekend in anticipation of other reading plans to see me through the end of the year. Cath has kindly written a last post, which we'll be sharing tomorrow and I have a few loose ends to tie up over the weekend. I might end up with one of those spillover books in my travel bag next week, or maybe another Maigret mystery or maybe another book to help fill in my Bingo card. So many good choices.