The Misty Harbour – Georges Simenon
A man is picked up in Paris by the police. He has lost his memory, has recovered from a serious wound to his head and has five thousand francs in his pocket. The appearance of his maid, Julie, at the police station reveals that he is Yves Joris, the harbour master of the Normandy port of Ouistreham, just outside Caen. Within twenty four hours of his return to Ouistreham, Joris is dead. Maigret sets out to unravel the mystery.
As with many of Simenon’s novels, this book, first published in 1932, is very atmospheric. When Maigret arrives at the port, he can hardly see anything in front of him because of the mist, a metaphor which is picked up throughout the book as the detective slowly and methodically picks his way to the truth, despite the best efforts of the local community to close ranks and frustrate him. Maigret has to resort to some unorthodox methods – a spot of breaking and entering – to move his investigation on but, inevitably, he succeeds and a rather convoluted plot is unravelled. Central to the story is another tale of human frailty and a set of consequences that could so easily have been avoided.
Where the book is strong is in its descriptions of the port – it was apparently quite a busy place in the 1930s with its rather complex set of waterways. Simenon also paints a tremendously vivid picture of life in a community such as Ouistreham in his usual sparse, careful language – astonishing for someone who wrote so quickly. You can smell the fug of dampness, tobacco smoke, alcoholic vapours and coffee. I found I admired this book, longer than the norm for a Simenon novel, for its writing rather than the mystery Maigret was solving.
The Liberty Bar – Georges Simenon
In terms of atmosphere, this book, also published in 1932, is the polar opposite of the Misty Harbour. Set in Antibes we have sunlight and glare. Maigret is hot and sticky, uncomfortable, a fish out of water. He is sent from Paris to investigate the mysterious death of an Australian, William Brown. The two women who lived with Brown concoct an implausible story to account for his demise. Maigret, who is under strict instructions not to cause a drama, sets out to uncover the truth.
Brown, who has worked with French intelligence, has lived a double life. He would go off for a few days a month on a bender – his novena – and hook up with two other women. A fortune, a will and the petty jealousy between two of his women lead to his undoing. Maigret follows the trail – it is a rather low-key, low-energy investigation, reflective of Maigret’s instructions and his discomfort with the heat. But he gets there in the end. As often is the way with Maigret, though, he allows natural justice rather than the judiciary to prevail, the perpetrator left to see out their remaining few months at liberty but filled with remorse.
This is one of Simenon’s better Maigret novels and provides an interesting insight into the lifestyle on the Cote d’Azur in the 1930s as well as Maigret’s investigative methods and if you were looking to dip your toe into Simenon’s work, this is as good a place as any to start.