GEORGES SIMENON – Maigret and the Black Sheep. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, hardcover, 1976. Hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club, 3-in-1 edition. Harvest Books, paperback, 1983.

NICOLAS FREELING – The Bugles Blowing. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1975. Vintage Books, paperback, 1980.

   Jules Maigret and Henri Castang both work for France’s Police Judiciaire, but any similarity between the two stops there. Maigret, that great-hearted bear of a man, larger than life, patiently sucking on his pipe or sipping a calvados in the local brasserie while he absorbs the atmosphere, was created by Georges Simenon in 1931 and appeared regularly until the author’s retirement in 1972.

   Castang, an efficient if featureless cog in the investigative bureaucracy of an unnamed provincial city, is the newest creation of Nicolas Freeling, whose better known series character was the late Inspector Van Der Valk of the Amsterdam police. Put together the new Castang novel and a recently translated Maigret, and you have a measure of how the European police novel has evolved over the past few years.

   Maigret and the Black Sheep first appeared in France in 1962, but from internal detail, it might as easily date from 1932 or 1952. The murder of a retired cardboard-box manufacturer in a middle-class Montparnasse apartment building brings Maigret into confrontation with the dead man’s wife, daughter and son-in-law, all three of whom seem to Maigret to be hiding something.

   His efforts to penetrate their common secret take the form of foot-slogging routine rather than the usual near-mystical osmosis by which he blends into his surroundings until he comprehends them. The book as a whole, though smooth to read, lacks the substance and bite of the best Maigrets and seems almost like a work of the 19th cnetury when compared with Freeling.

   The Bugles Blowing opens on a stifling Sunday afternoon with a government official’s phoned conversation with Castang that he has just walked into an orgy involving his wife and teen-age daughter and the artist who was painting the wife’s portrait.

   He has killed all three. The murderer’s high position leads everyone to expect a whitewash, a plea of temporary insanity followed by a brief sentence to a country-club psychiatric institution. But this killer seems obsessively determined to force the government to execute him.

   The movement of the story is ponderous, painfully precise, like the French criminal justice system which is the subject, and Freeling captures both the nobility and nonsense in the ritual behavior of the system’s functionaries. Without suspense or surprise, we are made to march to the gallows with a murderer whose execution becomes more unthinkable and more inevitable with each chapter.

   The strength of this novel lies ints slow accumulation of details — legal, literary, culinary and sheerly human — reflecting countless aspects of French life, including the polarization caused by the Arab-Israeli conflict and the existence of a number of professional terrorists used by the government for political assassinations. One would never find such a wealth of contemporary minutiae in the classically uncluttered policiers of Simenon.

   When a British police officer in The Bugles Blowing speaks of those “awful Maigret books in which the French policemen become exceptionally sharp after about four Pernods,” he may or may not be speaking for Freeling. But there is definitely a new form of European sensibility at work in the police novel, and readers for a taste for it will not want to forget Freeling or Castang.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 1, No. 5, September 1977.