Lock No 1 – Georges Simenon
It is bewildering to keep up with Simenon. He wrote 76 novels featuring his French sleuth over a period running from 1931 to 1972. This is the eighteenth issued by Penguin as part of their excellent series of new translations, but it was published originally in 1933. At least Penguin have reverted to a title that directly translates the French original – it has appeared in English under other names such as The Lock at Charenton and Maigret Sits it Out.
One of the strange things about the book, which, frankly, is not one of Simenon’s best, is that Maigret is retiring in a few days’ time. This gives the tale what dramatic tension it has, as both Maigret and the malefactor know that the clock is ticking.
The action is set in the south-eastern suburb of Paris, Charenton, where one man is stabbed and left to drown and three others are hung. The key to the gruesome chapter of events and the one fascinating character in the story is Ducrau, the wealthy owner of most of the local industry and transportation. He is an obnoxious character, who goes out of his way to be obnoxious to his employees, his neighbours and his family.
Although it does not take great detective powers to work out that Ducrau is the key to what has gone on, Maigret plays a canny, waiting game, getting close to the man, even receiving a post-retirement offer of employment from him. Maigret, though, is wearing him down until he cracks.
The highlights of the book are Simenon’s evocative and atmospheric descriptions of the waterfront and a fine psychological sketch of a rich man who has it all but is bored. The climax of the book is surprising, although it sort of fits the picture of Ducrau that Simenon was painstakingly building up.
Maigret – Georges Simenon
The 19th in the series, published originally in 1934, has also appeared in English under the title, Maigret Returns. It also sees Simenon return to form.
By now Maigret is enjoying retirement in the Loire but he is summoned by his sister-in-law to try to extricate his nephew, Philippe Lauer, from a charge of murdering a night-club owner, Pepito Palestrino. Maigret is on a sticky wicket as he had found his naïve and clod-hopping nephew a job in the police and has no official authority. He also rubs up against the jealousy of his successor, Chief Inspector Amadieu. But Maigret does command some loyalty, not least from his faithful and diligent former assistant, Sergeant Lucas.
With these ingredients, Simenon constructs a rip-roaring story, full of suspense and action. Maigret is portrayed as almost a comic character, unable to dictate events and powerless to follow his intuition directly. Instead, he does what he does best, observe and drawing on his vast database of human characteristics and foibles, is eventually able to get to the bottom of what is a gangland dust-up straight out of central casting and exonerate his nephew. He even gets to earn the grudging respect of Amadieu.
This is definitely a book that Maigret aficionados will enjoy and is also a good entry point, albeit a slightly bizarre one given that the detective’s career is seemingly over, for those keen to find out what the fuss is all about.