Friday, February 05, 2010

The Book You Have to Read: “The Saint-Fiacre Affair,” by Georges Simenon

(Editor’s note: This is the 80th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection has been made by Welsh-born novelist-journalist Matt Beynon Rees, author of the Dagger Award-winning series of Palestinian crime novels featuring Bethlehem sleuth Omar Yussef. The Fourth Assassin, in which Omar uncovers an assassination plot in the Brooklyn Palestinian community, is published this week by Soho Crime. Rees also blogs at The Man of Twists and Turns.)

For a couple of decades now, I’ve lived around the world as a journalist and writer. It’s been 22 years since I quit the place where I grew up. If I’d been a happy kid, I’d probably never have left. So whenever I go back for a visit, I become quiet, silenced by a bitter nostalgia and regret. Maybe that’s why I love this somber, atmospheric early episode in Georges Simenon’s Maigret series, in which “le Commissaire” goes back to his childhood village.

The Saint-Fiacre Affair (also known as Maigret Goes Home) was originally published in 1932, three years after French Inspector Jules Maigret first made his appearance in a series that would eventually amount to 103 novels. The Belgian writer created a figure whose fat belly, soft hat, and pipe would become iconic.

Maigret appeared in so many movies and television adaptations--for Saint-Fiacre alone there’s a 1959 French-language movie with Jean Gabin and two British TV versions--that it’s easy to think of him with the cozy familiarity we often ascribe to endlessly reproduced old-timers like Miss Marple. But Simenon wasn’t willing to look at the world the way Agatha Christie did. He had a lot more in common with his great U.S. crime-writing contemporaries. In fact, in Saint-Fiacre, he makes the lugubrious Raymond Chandler look like a breezy teenage girl humming a happy tune as she skips down a sunny small-town street in her bobby socks. Imagine that.

Simenon’s first editor wrote to him: “Your books aren’t real police novels. They aren’t scientific. They don’t play by the rules. There’s no love story in them. There’re no sympathetic characters. You won’t have a thousand readers.” Well, 550 million copies printed shows what that guy knew about potential sales. But he was right about the way Simenon’s books worked. No real good guys and nothing--certainly not love--untainted by the grasping desire to escape a society of dying traditions and internal immigration.

Most readers who actually get to Maigret these days probably know the novels of the character’s heyday in the late 1960s, early ’70s--Maigret and the Wine Merchant, Maigret’s Boyhood Friend. By then, the inspector had slipped into a comfortable domesticity. He’d interrupt his investigation to see a movie with his wife or to sip a white wine at a café--even if he was still terse and hard when it came to the crunch. In reading those books, it’s easy to forget that in the 1930s and 1940s, Simenon was an exponent of a particular mélange of existentialism and gritty detective fiction that’s quite strikingly harsh even today. (Check out 1948’s Dirty Snow for a rough ride with a profiteer during the German occupation. There’s a guy who really doesn’t care about anyone or anything. In your face, Albert Camus!)

The Saint-Fiacre Affair begins with Maigret waking up in the inn of the village of Saint-Fiacre. At first he doesn’t recognize where he is. As it dawns upon him, he’s flooded with a heavy sense of darkness. He has returned to the village where he grew up to investigate a crime which is about to happen. (His office in the Paris police headquarters received a note saying that “A crime will be committed at the Saint-Fiacre Church during the first mass of the days of the dead.”)

As he strolls through the village, people glance at him curiously. They seem to recognize him, but can’t place the face of the son of the former steward at the local château, a face that left their community 35 years previously to pursue a career in the capital. All other traces of Maigret’s family are gone from the village and he wanders it sensing somehow that its very stones are unwelcoming.

When characters eventually recognize him or when he owns up to being from Saint-Fiacre, they seem to wonder what the hell could’ve brought him back. It’s clear they don’t trust him. There’s no hale slap on the back or curiosity about what he’s been doing all these years. Simenon captures the isolation and suspicion of the French peasant for the big city perfectly. What these people are signaling to Maigret--and what he instinctively realizes--is that he may have been born in Saint-Fiacre, but the moment he left he ceased to belong to it. They owe him nothing. He’s on his own.

If you’ve ever been back to a place where you weren’t happy as a kid, a place from which you wanted to escape, you’ll feel as though you’re reading your diary, not a detective novel.

At the first mass, the Countess of Saint-Fiacre dies of a heart attack. With his crime delivered as promised, Maigret uncovers a clue at the scene and tracks the killer. But it’s really his own despondent sense of alienation that’s at the heart of this novel.

4 comments:

Richard Robinson said...

I love these books and have been slowly making my way through the series, not in any particular order, for a few years at the pace of two or three a year. This is one I haven't read and certainly sounds different than those I have!

Great review, thanks very much.

Pauline Rowson said...

I too am a great fan and have a wonderful collection of his novels, but haven't got this one and neither have I read it. I'll be looking out for it.

Evan Lewis said...

Not only have I never read a Maigret book, but I had the impression he was a cozy guy. I need to try one.

Ed Gorman said...

In addition to the Maigrets there are many psychological suspense novels by Simenon that are just as compelling. I read his autobiography when it first appeared and as I recall it began with a tirade: (paraphrase) At last dear Mother I can tell the world what a ruthless bitch you were. (or somesuch)

Not a sentimental tribute to old mum. :)