Tu Cherches Quoi, Rencontrer la Mort?

A Maigret Christmas: And other Stories
Georges Simenon

Can crime fiction aspire to literature?

Is it even worth pondering that question? Or am I once again cutting corners, attempting to form a thesis out of a trifle?  As important, can anyone as prolific as Georges Simenon create literary work?

I’m not certain I can answer any of those questions and I’d be foolish to try on the basis of one slim volume containing all of three tales. Yet there is obviously a different sensibility at work in these tightly composed, closely observed stories. Whatever label is ultimately hung on the work, it is surely not disposable.

Around here, I spend a little too much time reading things that are disposable. I’ve often noted my inability to see that which other readers see and I can be a bit lazy. Great big books by important literary figures intimidate me; the going is often slow and the seeming lack of progress doesn’t help.

Yet, to return to my opening query, I’m not all wet. The editors at the Library of America have seen fit to single out a number of writers as meeting their canonical standards. (In case you missed those installments, you can find them here, here, here and most recently here.) The closely-related genre of spy fiction has also thrown up a literary master. So why shouldn’t France, or more properly, Belgium?

I pictured a girl much like this as I read the story which provided the book’s title.

Georges Simenon was born in Belgium and emigrated to Frace as an adult, eventually landing in Paris. Initially, he worked as a journalist. I suppose that experience informed his familiarity with the city and his attention to detail. It may also speak to his output. Alone among the many strains of writer, working print journalists publish nearly every day. It’s hard to lose the mental muscle memory such an experience would help build.

Simenon wrote hundred of stories and his most famous character, who is often referred to by his surname, a la Holmes, is Commissaire Maigret. More properly, the detective is Jules Amedée François Maigret of the Brigade Criminelle of the Paris Police.  In more familiar terms, he’s a homicide detective assigned to headquarters, although only in Paris would the equivalent of 1PP be located on a quay named after Orpheus on the banks of the Seine.

The titular and longest tale in this collection takes place in a residential neighborhood elsewhere in the city that is even more familiar to Maigret. It begins, in fact, with the detective awakening at home on Christmas morning where the domestic routine of a holiday is disrupted by the arrival of two women who come from the building directly across the street.

An unknown man has broken into the apartment of the less talkative, almost-reluctant-to-be there woman, and torn up the floorboards in the bedroom of her step-daughter. No, she has no reason to believe there was anything of value that anyone would be looking for. They should not have bothered the Commissaire.

36_quai_des_Orfèvres, Paris
The former HQ of the Paris Police

The balance of the novella is a procedural that demonstrates the detective’s knack for ratiocination and his mastery of his city and organization. Christmas is almost always a quiet day, if only by comparison with the hustle, bustle and celebration of the preceding weeks. Commercially, a limited number of establishments are open and few people are making their way to work. It is a day, in the absence of children, on which you can hear silence.

Maigret proceeds quietly about his work. There is much telephoning. His staff is pressed into service. Christmas becomes a day filled with investigative activity and yet it remains quiet. I read Sherlock Holmes too early to notice such things. Much of Maigret’s work, though, is cerebral. Like Holmes and even Smiley, his work is an almost silent mostly interior undertaking.

The solution of the crime takes the better part of Christmas day though, this being France, the dinner prepared by Madame Maigret is not ignored. Evening finds a cast assembled at the crime scene in a tableau quite familiar to readers of mystery stories. In the end, the detective not only gets his man, he adds a new domestic title and related duties to his portfolio.

A police officer in Paris, sometime during the 1930s, the period in which these tales are set.

The second tale focuses on André Lecœur, a police officer who works at what I would call Central Dispatch. On a sleepy Christmas morning, Lecœur is finishing the night shift–which he typically works–when a puzzle emerges. As he checks in with various substations and units, a series of alarms are received. Someone is breaking the streetside alarm boxes and pulling the switches, apparently at random.

Lecœur cannot abide randomness. He is a secretive pattern seeker who maintains a running history of Paris’ criminal activity, at least during the graveyard shift, jotting reported crimes down in a small notebook using a personally-developed shorthand. He is, decades ahead of time, a one-man CompStat.

In an otherwise straightforward procedural, that notebook provides the key insight to a series of homicides that have plagued the city in recent months but have gone unsolved because they appeared unrelated.  Lecœur sees the pattern and convinces an inspector it is real. Then, a family angle emerges and the tension ratchets up greatly. I wouldn’t have thought a switchboard could be the epicenter of the action.

In the final tale, we meet Tall Jeanne, an independent working girl on Christmas Eve. With a few others, she has finished her dinner at a small neighborhood restaurant when fate intervenes. Another customer takes his own life and the staff and diners must speak with the police.

Parisian working girls a decade or two after these stories.

During these conversations, Jeanne discovers that the other young woman dining there is from her hometown. She may even have known her as a child, tadpoles as she called the kids a decade or so younger than herself. When they are allowed to leave, Jeanne finds herself tailing the tadpole.

It’s odd to consider a story that begins with a suicide and ends, after an all too public catfight, in the city lock-up a Christmas tale. Such a distinction shouldn’t be made just because of the date a story occurs, should it? Perhaps such things happen but in this case there really is a Christmas angle. Just don’t expect it to smack you in the head. It’s lying there, resting its head, waiting to be seen.

Defining literature is a risky business. It ought to be about weighty matters and aesthetic purity. Are stories such as these the stuff of literature? These are not just tales of crimes, the crimes may well be ancillary. They are self-contained worlds populated with characters grappling with the full range of human thoughts and emotions.

I ask again, are stories such as these the stuff of literature? And I respond, they may well be.











One thought on “Tu Cherches Quoi, Rencontrer la Mort?

  1. Love it!! Well done, Tim! You’ve made me want to go dust off some Simenon… who I haven’t read since junior high!

    And only one little French typo…

    Sent from my iPhone


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