The Bar on the Seine

He had handled hundreds of cases in his time, and he knew that they nearly always fell into two distinct phases. Firstly, coming into contact with a new environment, with people he had never even heard of the day before, with a little world which some event had shaken up. He would enter this world as a stranger, an enemy; the people he encountered would be hostile, cunning, or give nothing away. This, for Maigret, was the most exciting part. He would sniff around for clues, feel his way in the dark with nothing to go on. He would observe people’s reactions–any one of them could be guilty, or complicit in the crime.

Once in a while on one of the nights I tutor I treat myself to dinner at Panera with a book. It’s one of those places like Starbucks where if you are alone, you’re almost expected to have something with you to do. Unfortunately the last time I left my current book at home (The Elegance of the Hedgehog), and had to stop at the library en route. This little Maigret mystery was the perfect size.

I first met Georges Simenon’s Parisian inspector last summer in The Yellow Dog. The Bar on the Seine begins when Maigret visits a young man on death row to break the news that he must face the gallows. In frustration, the prisoner hints that he knows of others just as deserving of his fate. Six years ago he and a friend saw a man commit an unknown murder; they blackmailed him for a while, lost track, and recently saw him at a small bar called the Guinguette à Deux Sous.

Maigret has no name or clue save a bar no one seems to know, but feels compelled to investigate in honor of the prisoner. A chance eavesdropping eventually leads him to the Guinguette à Deux Sous, and the close-knit group of Parisian bourgeois who make it their weekend getaway. One of these carefree vacationers has murdered in the past. Before the weekend is over death strikes again, and Maigret must untangle the loves and loyalties of the group in order to solve both crimes.

Simenon writes in a style that is direct without being blunt, factual without being judgmental. He has often been praised for his realism, and paints a snapshot-like picture of 1930’s France. Rather than giving a gritty portrayal, however, he has a surprisingly sympathetic touch. A condemned criminal, a cuckold husband, and a restless young man come to life on the pages, each human in his happiness, fragile in his failings. I loved this passage about Maigret visiting one of the men at home:

“The room was not more than four metres long, and yet it felt like two rooms, as if two people lived their lives here without ever crossing each other’s path. The wife, who had decorated the flat entirely to her own taste, spent her time sewing, embroidering, cooking, making dresses, while James would come home every evening at eight and eat his dinner without saying a word, then read until bedtime, when that sofa covered with brightly coloured cushions pulled out to form a bed. It was easier now to understand James’ need for his “little bolt-hole” on the terrace of the Taverne Royale, with his glass of Pernod in front of him.”

Maigret, too, is a human inspector. He makes the case a priority, and gets frustrated when it seems to go nowhere. He misses his wife, on vacation without him, but can understand the affairs of other men. He detects with equal parts insight, legwork, and luck, and knows when he is on the right track even if unsure of where it leads. Most of all, he seems to hate the crime without hating the criminal. His world is gray, rather than noir or white.

The Yellow Dog was good, but The Bar on the Seine was excellent. It would be a good introduction for anyone new to Maigret. I also have to say again how much I love the design of these Penguin editions. It sets the atmosphere even before you begin reading.

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Published in: on January 18, 2011 at 3:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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