by Francis M. Nevins


   The first three of the six Maigret novels that Georges Simenon wrote in France while that country was under Nazi occupation were published, as we saw two months ago, in the 528-page omnibus volume MAIGRET REVIENT (Gallimard, 1942). Simenon and his family had moved back to Fontenay-le-Comte from Nieul-sur-Mer before he wrote the earliest of the later trio, SIGNÉ PICPUS, in the summer of 1941. A translation by Geoffrey Sainsbury was issued in England (as TO ANY LENGTHS, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1950, Penguin pb #1225, 1958) but only came to American shores in an edition published a few days before Simenon’s death (MAIGRET AND THE FORTUNETELLER, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1989).

   We open on a fiercely hot August evening when Maigret is visited in his office on the Quai des Orfèvres by Joseph Mascouvin, a dull unobtrusive clerk in a firm of estate agents. He claims that he embezzled a thousand-franc note from office funds and then, plagued by second thoughts, dropped into a café for a drink, asked for pen and paper—apparently a common request in French cafés—-and started to write a note of confession to his employers, only to discover on a sheet of blotting paper the reverse image of a message which, using his eyeglasses for a mirror, he was able to read: “Tomorrow afternoon on the stroke of five I am going to kill the fortuneteller.”

   Giving the novel its title, the message is signed Picpus. Maigret takes this bizarre story seriously and has the police keep an eye on the 82 known fortune-tellers in Paris. But at a few minutes after five the next afternoon, a report comes into the Police Judiciaire that a clairvoyant who had flown under the official radar has been found stabbed to death in her apartment.

   Maigret visits the crime scene and finds the door to the kitchen of the apartment locked with no key in sight. When it’s opened by a locksmith, a strange old man is found among the pots and pans. He claims that he was visiting Mlle. Jeanne when suddenly she had heard someone coming and locked him in. Maigret takes the bewildered and frightened old man back to the apartment he shares with his wife and daughter but soon senses something wrong: it seems that the old man, a retired ship’s doctor named Le Cloaguen, is kept locked in his cell-like bedroom, given only enough food to keep him alive, and is not allowed any money when he goes out although the family is living on an annuity of 200,000 francs a year.

   Then Mascouvin suddenly leaps into the Seine and comes near killing himself. Maigret patiently explores the situation—at one point spending a Sunday afternoon at a riverside inn very similar to the one he stayed at in LA GUINGUETTE À DEUX SOUS (1932; translated as GUINGUETTE BY THE SEINE)—and eventually exposes a colossal fraud scheme and a ring of blackmailers. With plenty of Paris atmosphere and a plot more complex than usual (although the astute reader may well intuit at least the fraud part of the plot along with Maigret), this is one of the wartime gems.

   Sainsbury’s translation features a number of noticeable Anglicisms: Maigret wears braces rather than suspenders, and at one point there is fear that a juge d’instruction will kick up a shindy. But I was distracted much more by Sainsbury’s strange habit of italicizing all street names, for no better reason than that they’re French. Are the British locutions and italics preserved in the U.S. edition? Je ne sais pas.


   During the winter of 1941-42 Simenon wrote what we might call the first Maigret novelet. “Menaces de mort” was published as a six-part serial in the weekly Révolution National (8 March-12 April 1942) but until very recently was available in English only on the Web. (It’s now the title story in a new Simenon collection, DEATH THREATS AND OTHER STORIES, Penguin 2021.)

   Like SIGNÉ PICPUS it begins with a threatening note, this one without even a fanciful signature. Constructed out of words from various newspapers, it was delivered to the head of a rag-and-scrap company, predicting that he’ll die on the coming Sunday before 6:00 p.m. Being blessed with thirty million francs and excellent political connections, Emile Grosbois prevails on the Police Judiciaire to supply him with a bodyguard, and Maigret is assigned to accompany the junk dealer to the weekend retreat on the Seine, near Coudray, which he shares with his twin brother, his widowed sister and her son and daughter.

   Calling the Grosbois family dysfunctional would be like calling King Kong a cute little monk. Maigret arrives at Coudray by train on the Saturday afternoon and witnesses roughly 24 hours of vicious infighting among the family members, who uniformly leave him disgusted, but nothing violent happens—until just before 6:00 on Sunday when Emile suddenly keels over on his terrace.

   Maigret recognizes that he’s been poisoned, saves his life by making him vomit, and the story ends, except for a Monday morning recap when the Commissaire explains everything to his boss: “It’s nice to save people but it would be better if they deserved it.” His claim that he knew the truth about the death threat since the get-go must rank as just about the most ridiculous thing he ever said.

   We don’t know whether it was Simenon’s decision to leave this farrago of silliness out of all subsequent French collections of his stories and, until recently, to exclude it from the English language completely, but if so it was a wise move. Luckily it didn’t discourage him from writing more and much better Maigrets of the same length after the war.


   Intent on providing his infant son Marc with a better climate, Simenon had moved his family again, this time to the village of La Faute sur Mer, before May 1942 when the next Maigret was written. FÉLICIE EST LÀ (translated as MAIGRET AND THE TOY VILLAGE, Hamish Hamilton 1978, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1979) is lighter in tone than almost any other Maigret, and Simenon liked to cite it as an illustration of his skill as a humorist.

   If he arranged the details of character and setting in “Menaces de Mort” so as to evoke our repugnance, in FÉLICIE he goes to the opposite extreme to make us feel at peace: sunlight, the pleasant odor of flowers, pink brick cottages, twittering birds, le tout monde or, as a Yank might say, the whole nine yards.

   Maigret visits a new housing development outside of Paris, looking into the murder of Lapie, a one-legged retired bookkeeper living on a pension, who was shot to death in the bedroom of his pleasant cottage on a spring morning. Sharing the cottage with him was his 24-year-old servant girl Félicie, “a caricature of a woman out of a storybook….” Maigret describes her as ”thin as a stick, with a pointed nose and a forehead like a nanny goat’s, always decked out in all the colors of the rainbow….”

   She seems to live in a fantasy world, imagining herself alternately as Lapie’s mistress, his illegitimate daughter, a princess incognito, and the heroine of one of those cheap French romance novels Simenon had turned out at dizzying speed back in his early twenties. This weird woman gives Maigret no end of trouble as he hunts for clues, to the point of hiding the murder weapon and slipping off to Paris where she plants it on a stranger in the Métro. (Simenon serves up a huge credibility croissant when he has Maigret and Félicie stop for lunch at the same Paris restaurant where the man on whom she planted the weapon is eating.)

   The murderer never comes onstage for even a moment, and whatever humor the French may have found in these pages—like the Breton accent of a character who says maisong and mossieu, the mano a mano between Maigret and a live lobster, and most of all the interplay between the Commissaire and Félicie—is not likely to make coffee spill out the noses of us Yanks. But Simenon does a fine job creating a rich light atmosphere that generates a sense that the world is an okay place.


   It’s hard to believe the number of moves Simenon and his family were able to make during the years of war and occupation, but we must remember that the author was a wealthy and influential figure even under the Nazis, and that movies based on Maigret novels, starring Albert Préjean as the Commissaire, were being released regularly during the Occupation.

   By early 1943 they had moved from Fontenay to a rented villa in Saint-Mesmin-le-Vieux, about 40 kilometers away. There he spent February and early March writing the sixth and final Maigret novel of the war years, L’INSPECTEUR CADAVRE (translated as MAIGRET’S RIVAL, Hamish Hamilton 1979, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980). The title is the nickname of lugubrious Justin Cavre, a former member of Maigret’s squad who now works as a private detective.

   The Commissaire’s role from first page to last is wholly unofficial as, at the behest of a juge d’instruction, he travels on a dark January day to the marshy little village of Saint-Aubin, in the Vendée 22 kilometers from Fontenay, to look into the death of a young man who was supposedly run over by a train. There have been rumors and anonymous letters claiming that the youth was murdered by Etienne Naud, a local bigwig who happens to be the brother-in-law of a certain juge d’instruction.

   On the train to the village Maigret encounters Cavre and begins to suspect that the ex-cop has been hired on the same case. As usual, the Commissaire sets out to absorb the local environment, checking out rumors that are roundly denied throughout the village—that the dead youth’s bloody cap had been found near the Nauds’ house and that his widowed mother had come into a large sum of money—and trying to process the confession to him by the Nauds’ 20-year-old daughter that she’s three months pregnant by the dead boy.

   After the climactic confrontation scene Maigret returns to Paris with the murder not only officially unsolved but not even recognized as a murder. The plot is rather sloppy, as interested readers may explore by clicking here, but the atmosphere—darkness, ice, mud and cynicism in roughly equal parts—is superbly created.


   The three novels I’ve discussed here were first published in France, along with a number of stand-alone short stories, in a huge omnibus volume simply titled SIGNÉ PICPUS (Gallimard, 1944). American readers didn’t get to see these novels in their own language until generations later. The three mark the end of Maigret’s so-called middle period, followed by a sort of sabbatical during which Simenon wrote no more about the Commissaire until after the war when, fearing that he’d be punished in France for having been too cozy with the Nazis, he emigrated to North America.