I was eager to try a Maigret mystery. Not only is the name so well known, but I recently viewed an old Maigret movie which finds Maigret in Finland, trying to figure out why a colleague had been shot. In this context, Maigret is, understandably, totally dependent on his Finnish colleague for translations.
It strains my credulity, however, to think that, even in 1930, when the book was written and the story presumably occurs, the French police would send to Holland, to investigate a murder in which a French citizen may be implicated, an officer who not only did not know Dutch, but knew neither German nor English. He’s thus dependent on those in this very small town who happen to know some French, none of whom, it turns out, were totally neutral with respect to the crime.
Given my Dutch heritage, I found it exciting for Maigret to be Delfzijl, in the far north of the Netherlands, just across the huge Ems River estuary from Germany. I was even more excited when I read that the main characters were from the same very conservative Reformed (Calvinist) denominations my forebears brought with them to the U.S. (Some contemporary descendants of such Dutch-American immigrants feature in my Maasdam Murder and More stories, forthcoming). So these people would be, as it were, cousins to my grandparents.
Well, Simenon lets the reader down. As my wife says, the Maigret stories tend to be “flat.” With respect to these conservative Calvinists we get only stereotypical descriptions (propriety, sobriety without abstinence, cleanliness and orderliness). Duh! Surely the situation Maigret enters here would be the opportunity for much more local color and insight.
Other key aspects of the novel fall flat. Maigret himself is not very interesting. We learn that he’s gruff, that he holds his cards close to his vest, that he’s big and strong. Why is he this way? Does he have an inner life? No clue.
The murder in the story turns out to be mundane and tawdry. The solution to the mystery, though it takes Maigret a couple of days to arrive at it, is not really very difficult. Except for the eighteen-year old woman who features in the story, the characters are uninteresting. The fact that several of them cannot communicate with Maigret certainly contributes to this, as Simenon forbears to give us much of their conversation among themselves. We’re limited to what Maigret can observe and grasp, and, as noted, he’s not a very interesting or reflective person.