FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   My last column took us to France, and for the first part of this one we’re going to stay there, or at least in Europe. Lately I’ve been reading a number of Georges Simenon’s novels and short stories, dating from 1936 till the late years of the war, that are usually lumped together as the Maigret middle period.

   How many short stories should be included in this group depends on how long a tale must be to disqualify it for the designation. According to the most comprehensive Maigret website, the number of shorts is 28. The earliest nine of these were apparently written in a single month, October 1936, and at least eight of them were first published in Paris-Soir-Dimanche between late that month and the first week of 1937.

   Nobody seems to know where and when the ninth originally came out, but it’s one of these tales that I want to dissect here. Why? Because, unless I’ve missed something, it makes zero sense.

   “Peine de Mort” (Paris-Soir-Dimanche, November 15, 1936) appeared in EQMM as “Inspector Maigret’s War of Nerves” (October 1968) and in Maigret’s Pipe (Hamish Hamilton 1977, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1978) as “Death Penalty.”

   Maigret stalks Jehan d’Oulmont, a dissolute young Belgian he suspects of having bludgeoned to death his wealthy uncle and stolen the 32,000 francs Unc had brought with him to Paris for a bout of high living. It’s a foregone conclusion that if convicted, d’Oulmont will be sentenced to the guillotine. But Maigret has absolutely no evidence against the guy, who therefore is given official permission to return to Belgium in the company of his Jewish mistress, with Maigret taking the same train and continuing to shadow and harass the young man.

   Along the way Simenon plants the crucial information that d’Oulmont has studied law and that Belgium has abolished the death penalty. The climax takes place in a Brussels nightclub where in Maigret’s presence, a local detective arrests d’Oulmont and claims to have an extradition warrant for him. D’Oulmont reaches inside his girlfriend’s handbag, pulls out a gun and shoots at Maigret, who has earlier had the weapon replaced by another loaded with blanks.

   So no one’s been hurt, there’s no new evidence, the missing 32,000 francs have never been found, and yet Simenon assures us that d’Oulmont, although he’s escaped the guillotine, will be sentenced to life in a Belgian prison! For what crime? Discharging a pistol in a crowded nightclub? I’m amazed that Fred Dannay didn’t spot the glaring holes in this story.

   We can understand what went wrong here if we call on our friend Joe Google and discover, among other treasures, a 2007 essay in The Spectator by Simenon biographer Patrick Marnham. One of Simenon’s acquaintances during his early days as a journalist in Liège was an older man named Hyacinthe Danse, the obese proprietor of a pornographic bookshop whom Simenon described as “un vicieux” and Marnham calls a pedophile, blackmailer and pimp.

   One day in May 1933 the 50-year-old Danse butchered his mistress and his own mother with a hammer in a small village south of Paris and fled to his native Belgium. In Liège he called on one of his old teachers, a Jesuit named Father Hault who had also taught Simenon, made his confession to the priest, shot him three times, then took a taxi to the police station and surrendered.

   In December 1934 his death sentence was automatically commuted to life imprisonment, which meant that he couldn’t be extradited to France and the guillotine until he was dead. Simenon clearly based “Peine de Mort” on this incident, even having Maigret refer to “the murderer Danse” at the climax, but apparently forgot that there needed to be a real murder in Belgium in order for the legal gimmick to work. Quel dommage.

   Marnham discusses the matter on page 81 of his Simenon biography The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret (1992). I suspect that the obese porn merchant Labri, who appears in another of the stories Simenon wrote in October 1936 (“Une Erreur de Maigret,” translated in Maigret’s Pipe as “Maigret’s Mistake”), was also based on Danse.

***

   Let’s cross the Channel again, shall we? Every so often I feel an urge to revisit the world of John Rhode (1880-1964). Usually Rhode is lumped with the school of British detective novelists that Julian Symons labeled the Humdrums, and it can’t be denied that his prose is wooden and his characters flat, including Dr. Priestley, that ancient and magisterial grouch who starred in dozens of Rhode’s novels between the late Twenties and 1960 when he retired from writing.

   But I discovered him in my teens, built up a goodly supply of his books over the next few decades, and still find him readable in an unchallenging sort of way. Recently I tackled In the Face of the Verdict (Dodd Mead, 1940), in which Dr. P is longer onstage and more active than is his wont.

   The scene is Blacksand, a seaside village a little more than two hours by train from London. Sir John Hallatrow, the community squire, asks for help from Priestley’s friend Dr. Oldland, who in turns calls in Dr. P, when the drowned body of a fellow aristo who was badly scarred in World War I is hauled in by fishermen in their net.

   The evidence seems to indicate that the dead man somehow fell into the local river late at night while crossing the footbridge between Hallatrow’s stately home and his own, but Priestley has his doubts about the verdict of accidental death that the coroner’s jury brings in. Then the brother of the first corpse is also found drowned, and slowly but surely Priestley and his Scotland Yard colleagues uncover a complex scheme to route a substantial estate according to a sinister design, with a telepathy racket and a Water Drinkers League figuring on the edges of the plot.

   When I saw the 1940 copyright date on this novel, I was surprised that not a word of Rhode’s dull but soothing prose suggests that England is reeling under Hitler’s blitz. A quick check on Google explained why: the book was first published in the UK (without the first “the” in the title) back in 1936, three years before World War II began. I was also surprised that Rhode didn’t provide a map of the area around Blacksand, which I for one would have profited by. (I tried to draw one for myself but gave up.)

   This is certainly one of the smoother Rhodes that I’ve hiked over the years, but I recommend it only to those who have a taste for the humdrum now and then.