REVIEWED BY BARRY GARDNER:

   

JANET EVANOVICH – Two for the Dough. Stephanie Plum #2. Scribner, hardcover, 1996. Reprinted many times in paperback.

   I reviewed the first Stephanie Plum, One for the Money, an [issue] or two ago, and expressed surprise that I liked it as much as I did. I didn’t think it won any awards, but it was nominated for some. Evanovich’s prose and “voice” reminded me somewhat of Sparkle Hayter’s — glib, wiseass, and profane, maybe a little rougher.

   Our girl is still working as a bounty hunter for her bail bondsman cousin Vinnie, and is surviving. Barely. Then she gets handed a pickup on Kenny Mancuso, a “burg” (Stephnie’ s ethnic Trenton neighborhood) resident recently returned from the Army who shot his best friend in the leg and then skipped bail.

   Kenny happens to be the cousin of Joe Morelli, the cop with whom Stephanie has had a love/hate relationship dating back to childhood. Naturally things get complicated, and soon she and Morelli are up to their earlobes in trouble, with Stephanie’s somewhat eccentric Granny Mazur right in the middle of it all.

   I still think Evanovich has one of the most appealing and readable voices of the new crop, and I still like the character she gives the voice to. Even more than the first, though, this is a book that you need to tum off your brain to read, and just enjoy the characters and the prose.

   If you can do that, you’ve got another winner. I had a little more trouble doing it this time, either because the plot was even sillier than before, or I just wasn’t in as accepting a mood. l think maybe she needs to be read on the same basis as Kinky Friedman, really, which is to forget about plot.

   She has a great bunch of characters, though, and I really like her style. Granny Mazur is a hoot.

— Reprinted from Ah Sweet Mysteries #22, November 1995

   

Bibliographic Update: #28 in the series, Game On was published earlier this year.

FUTURE SCIENCE FICTION. June 1954. Cover by Ed Emshwiller [as by Emsh].     Overall rating: 3 stars.

IRVING COX, JR. “Peace on Earth.” Novelet. Aliens bring Earth love and peace, actually a test for galactic citizenship. Length adds little (2)

SAM SACKETT “Hail to the Chief.” Short novel. A processor of political science gets a chance to put his theories into practice. Unknown to the mass of American people, a group of the intellectually elite has been secretly ruling the country, and they ask Logan to join them. But he becomes disillusioned and attempts the murder of the Chief. Quite a fascinating hypothesis, with better than average character analysis. (4)

PHILIP K. DICK “Sales Pitch.” An unwanted self-selling robot attaches itself to a man and wife. Commuter rocket travel described exactly like freeway traffic? (1)

SAM MERWIN, JR. “The Intimate Invasion.” A bathroom is the location of a bridge between parallel worlds. Invasion through romance is foiled. (2)

GORDON R. DICKSON “Rescue.” A spaceman discovers lost colony, but the inhabitants do not plan on being rescued. (4)

-October 1967

OUT OF TIME. MGM, 2003. Denzel Washington, Eva Mendes, Sanaa Lathan, Dean Cain, John Billingsley. Director: Carl Franklin.

   Of all the movies that Denzel Washington has appeared in up to now, at least one of them must have been a time travel story, or so you’d think. In any case, though, based on the title, you might also think that this is one of them. But if you did, as I did when I came across this one just as it was leaving Showtime, you’d have been wrong.

   What it is instead is a solidly constructed crime film, with Denzel Washington as Matt Whitlock,the chief of police in a small town in Florida, a town so small that almost nothing happens for him to do, a situation which he is quite willing to take advantage of, until, of course, it does. Something does most definitely happen, that is, in a way that is almost more amusing than it should be, given the scrape he finds himself in.

   His marriage to Eva Mendez, playing the county’s chief homicide detective, is  heading for to the divorce courts, Matt has been sleeping with a long time lady friend who unfortunately has a jealous husband. Not the brightest of maneuvers, but hey, things like that happen. This particular potential pitfall is combined with nearly a half million dollars of drug money stored in an evidence locker in his office, and when the match goes off, the bodies of Matt’s erstwhile girl friend and her husband are discovered in their home, destroyed in flames.

   And who might the number one suspect be? You guessed it. Without having the advantage of his position as the chief of police and thus advance notices of the turns his wife’s investigation into the murders take, he’d be locked up in jail in thirty minutes flat. Watching him scoot just ahead of the tide coming in is what makes this fast-moving movie all the more enjoyable to follow along with, just to see what happens next.
   

REVIEWED BY DOUG GREENE:

   

LAWRENCE BLOCK – Sometimes They Bite. Arbor House, hardcover, 1983. Paperback editions include Jove, 1984. Avon, 1992.

   I was impressed with Lawrence Block’s Eight Millions Ways to Die. His detective, Matthew Scudder, is a fully-realized and invariably interesting character, and the suspects are sharply delineated. There are, however, some weaknesses in the book: Block’s comments about modern life have all the subtlety of a steamroller, and he doesn’t bother about fair play in clueing. But on the whole, the positive aspects of Eight Millions Ways led me to expect great things of Block’s first short-story collection, Sometimes They Bite.

   My reaction was, as they say, mixed. The volume has one fine Matt Scudder tale, one good story about thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, and two cases of that exceedingly criminal lawyer, Martin Ehrengraff.

   The other stories illustrate Block’s light touch — praised by many critics but which seems to me to trivialize tragedy. Block believes that his audience will be vastly amused whenever an attractive protagonist [sic]. This is not what Anthony Boucher meant when he said, “death and laughter are old friends.” Investigating a murder can be amusing; watching your friends in pain is not.

   With the exceptions of the Scudder, Ehrengraff and Rhodenbarr tales, Sometimes They Bite has no detection, no suspense and little mystery. Each story, it’s true, has a twist, and with a little effort some of them might have become mystery or detective stories.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 6, Number 1 (Spring 1984). Permission granted by Doug Greene.
REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:

   

WRONG TURN. Saban Films, 2021. Charlotte Vega, Adain Bradley, Bill Sage, Emma Dumont, Dylan McTee, Daisy Head, Matthew Modine. Director: Mike P. Nelson. Currently streaming on Showtime.

   From the trailer, you’d think that this was primarily a political film about the so-called divide between the rural and urban parts of the country. But it’s not. Not in the way one might expect. If anything, Wrong Turn – a reboot of the eponymous film series that began in the early 2000s – is a surprisingly clever backwoods thriller that upends expectations at nearly every turn (pun intended).

   Matthew Modine, who older viewers will always remember as the iconic Private Joker in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), portrays Scott Shaw, a suburban Dad in search of his daughter Jen (Charlotte Vega). She, along with her friends, have gone missing along the Appalachian Trail in western Virginia.

   Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Jen and her friends, when they strayed from the path, found themselves amongst a bizarre mountaintop cult. With echoes of The Wicker Man (1973) and the first season of True Detective, this effectively creepy horror film plays with the viewers expectations of what is about to happen and then radically subverts them. It’s a well shot film, as well. One that imposes a claustrophobic sense of doom on the proceedings.

   Unfortunately, due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, Wrong Turn   played theatrically for only one night. It deserved better. If you happen to get a chance to see it streaming, it’s worth a look. It’s not a classic in the making, but it’s certainly well above average and doesn’t overly insult the viewer’s intelligence.

   One caveat. The first fifteen minutes or so can be exceedingly tedious. This is because one gets the sense that the entire movie will be a “hipsters versus rednecks” scenario. Trust me. It’s not. It is significantly more thoughtful than that, even if the ultimate statement the movie intends to make is ultimately muddled.

   

REVIEWED BY DAVID FRIEND:

   

THE SNORKEL. Hammer Films, 1958. Peter Van Eyck, Betta St.John, Mandy Miller, Gregoire Aslan, William Franklyn. Directed by Guy Green.

   Several years ago, Candace ‘Candy’ Brown (Mandy Miller) saw her father drown and has always believed that Paul Decker (Peter van Eyck) was responsible. Now Candy is a teenager, Decker is her stepfather, and her mother has apparently gassed herself to death in their Italian villa.

   Candy is convinced that Decker killed her too. For one thing, there was no suicide note. Both the local police inspector (Grégoire Aslan) and British Consulate Mr Wilson (William Franklyn) believe the death was self-inflicted as the door was locked and the windows were sealed. Even her friend and nanny Jean Edwards (Betta St. John) thinks Candy is delusional.

   Unbeknownst to them, Decker is indeed the murderer and let in the gas himself before escaping through a trap door and hiding beneath the floorboards, where he donned a snorkel to prevent his own death from asphyxiation.

   Candy openly accuses him of murder, but Decker presents his passport as proof that he was across the border in France and was therefore not in the country at the time of her mother’s death.

   Undeterred, Candy investigates and soon figures out that a snorkel was somehow involved. Decker, meanwhile, becomes romantically interested in Jean and slyly suggests they have Candy committed to an American asylum while they start a new life together. However, as she moves closer to the truth, Decker decides more drastic action is necessary. He has the means, after all…

   The Snorkel is a thriller from Hammer, one of several they made which now cower in the tall, distinctive shadows of Frankenstein and Dracula. These play like Hitchcock on a lower budget and several came from the pen of Jimmy Sangster, who wrote many of their most iconic films and as such remains at least partly responsible for the company’s iconic cult status across the decades.

   The story for this one was dreamed up by actor Anthony Dawson (remembered for his superb performances in Dial M for Murder, Midnight Lace, Dr No, and an episode of The Saint), and though the murder method may lack the ingenuity of other locked room mysteries, it looks less unlikely when offered up first. An explanation at the end of the film may have seemed like a slight cheat.

   While Sangster’s later Taste of Fear would imperil a paraplegic, he focuses The Snorkel on another vulnerable female in teenager Candy, played by the slightly too old child actor Mandy Miller. This gives the film a faint Nancy Drew feel, though Candy has few deductions and no clues, while most of the developments are due to coincidence and an unshakeable conviction that Decker is the murderer.

   The detective work is limited to a furtive search of a hotel room before being dropped altogether and replaced with brassy confrontations and sullen assertions, while an inspection of the villa at night is simply there to generate some spooky atmosphere and slyly set up the finale.

   German actor Peter van Eyck (best known to English-language audiences for his appearance in Richard Burton-starring The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) acquits himself well as Decker, suave and serenely disappointed at one moment and blank-eyed and sinister in the next. He looks like a cross between Derren Nesbit and Jack Cassidy, which is fitting as this is basically an episode of Columbo (in the first few minutes, as he commits the murder, you expect to see the thick, yellow credits of that ’70s classic).

   The Snorkel doesn’t, however, offer a slyly formidable opponent, and wastes William Franklyn, potentially a perfect fit, in a negligible role. Really, though, it’s not that type of thriller in the first place, and Decker isn’t caught through any mistake of his own. This is an atmospheric, psychological thriller of the ‘damsel in distress’ variety, not a detective story.

   Though low-key, it features some excellent location work on the Italian Riviera, a tense climax that also teases something ruthlessly cold-hearted, all sewn up in a brisk, undemanding 74 minutes.

Rating: ***

REVIEWED BY BOB ADEY:

   

JAMES MITCHELL – Smear Job. David Callan #4.  (Character based on the TV series.) Hamish Hamilton, UK, hardcover, 1975. Putnam, US, hardcover, 1975. Berkley, US, paperback, 1978.

   The last of the four novels about reluctant intelligence agent David Callan — in this one dragged back out of what he had hoped was permanent retirement.

   As always the plot, concerning the location and kidnapping of an East German girl, rattles along at a gallop, the writing is taut yet imaginative, and Callan as convincing an anti-hero as you could hope to find.

   The action scenes are once again of the highest standard. and the only wonder is why Callan doesn’t command more attention than he does.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 6, Number 1 (Spring 1984).

   

      The David Callan series —

A Magnum for Schneider. Jenkins, 1969. Novelization of the TV movie.
Russian Roulette. H. Hamilton, 1973.
Death and the Bright Water. H. Hamilton 1974.
Smear Job.  H. Hamilton.
Bonfire Night, 2002.

      Short story collections:

Callan Uncovered (2014) Features 25 short stories (24 were written for the Sunday Express, and 1 for the TV Times), as well as a story treatment and the full script of an unfilmed episode, “Goodbye Mary Lee”.

Callan Uncovered 2 (2015) Features 15 short stories (all were written for the Sunday Express), as well as the full script of a ‘lost’ episode, “Goodness Burns Too Bright”.
   

EDITORIAL UPDATE: Quoting from Wikipedia: “Callan is a British action-drama television series created by James Mitchell, first airing between 1967 and 1972. It starred Edward Woodward as David Callan, an agent of a state secret service dealing with internal security threats to the United Kingdom. Though portrayed as having responsibilities similar to those of the real-life MI5, Callan’s fictional “Section” has carte blanche to use the most ruthless of methods.

   “Produced by ABC Weekend Television and Thames Television, the programme proved extremely popular; as well as four series between 1967 and 1972, followed by a feature-length film in 1974 and a TV movie in 1981.”
   

MURDER IN BATZ. FIT Productions, France, 16 October 2015 (Season 9, episode 2). Original title: Les blessures de l’île. Stéphane Freiss, Flore Bonaventura, François Marthouret, Sophie Le Tellier, Marie-José Nat. Director: Edwin Baily. Currently streaming on the MHz channel (as Season 1, Episode 2).

   It is difficult to obtain solid information about this made-for-French-TV movie. It is that, but it is also an episode of a long-running series with the overall title Murder in… . Each episode has a different pair of police detectives handling the case, almost always (if not always) the pair consisting two members of the opposite sex. (Some couples are on occasion repeated.) Each episode takes place in a picturesque location in France, differing from story to story with the local background generally playing a significant part of the story.

   Take this particular episode. Batz is a small island off the coast of Brittany, France, and when a murder takes place there and the weather is bad, the island is cut off from the mainland until the storm passes by. Taking the trip over before the rain begins is Inspector (?) Grégor Gourvennec, accompanied by a crime scene cleaner named Manon Le Gall. Dead is a real estate woman found in an old abandoned house facing the sea.

   As it turns out, both investigators have issues of their own to deal with. Grégor grew up on the island, but this is his first trip to there in twenty years, even though his mother and his former fiancée still live there.

   As for Manon, she is a medical student who cleans crime scenes to help pay her tuition bills, and once on the scene of the crime, she starts seeing ghosts, primarily that of a very young girl. Even more surprisingly, she also finds a grave with her own name and date of birth on it. Apparently she died there on the island when she was six.

   Naturally this adds a degree of complications not present in most mysteries, causing your typical viewer expecting a straightforward detective story (me) a certain amount of consternation. But believe it or not, the writers knew what they were doing, and by the end of the movie, all is explained to that fully confounded viewer’s complete satisfaction.

   All except for the visions of ghosts that Manon has, but that’s part of the charm of the entirely Gallic tale. One could only wish that the story didn’t have to take place entirely under overcast skies. Batz must look entirely different in the sunshine!

   

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:

   

OUT OF SINGAPORE. Goldsmith Productions, 1932. Noah Beery Sr, Dorothy Burgess, Mary Carroll Murray, George Walsh, Montagu Love, Leon Wong, and Jimmy Aubrey. Written by John Francis Nattleford and Frederic Chapin. Directed by Charles Hutchison.

THE LAST ALARM. Monogram, 1940.  J Farrell MacDonald, Warren Hull, Polly Ann Young, Mary Gordon, and George Pembroke. Written by Al Martin. Directed by William “One-Shot” Beaudine, as William West. (The latter added later.)

   My life was blighted at the tender age of Fourteen.

   Or if not actually blighted, at least noticeably warped when I read William K Everson’s The Bad Guys (Citadel, 1964) and was seduced by his loving descriptions of films I had little if any chance of seeing. I mean, for a kid in his mid-teens, living in a one-TV household in a three-station town, the opportunities were a bit slim, all in all, and if something interesting did make it onto the local channels, it was usually late on a School Night.

   And so I grew up feeling Life had cheated me, thinking “If only I had been around when these films, so knowingly praised and lovingly analyzed, were made…. Or if I were just a few years older, living the free and independent life of an adult….”

   Of course I had no way of knowing then that before I reached middle-age, the world would expand: Satellite TV, then VHS, then DVDs and streaming, brought all this to me in the wisdom of my advancing years. And finally I have the chance to see what the Old Sage of the Cinema was talking about, all those years ago.

   Well it ain’t much. Everson himself admitted Out of Singapore was “one of the cheapest of poverty row quickies” but even that doesn’t begin to describe the static camerawork, cardboard characters, perfunctory screenplay, and jagged editing.

   Or the rudimentary plot: Captain Carroll of the Marigold, desperate for a First Mate, signs on Woolf Barstow (Noah Beery Sr) a seaman who holds the Indian Ocean Division record for losing the most ships at sea, all full of dubious and heavily-insured “cargo.”

   Also on board is a skullduggerous Bos’n, Scar Murray (Montagu Love) The two rascals take to each other immediately, and I have to say their scenes together are a delight, chortling over their plans to do away with the Captain, sink the Marigold with all hands, and make off with the skipper’s nubile daughter (Mary Carol Murray) “A few weeks on a desert island will bring her around!”

   Of course if things went according to scheme, Out of Singapore would be a much different movie. In this case, the flies in the ointment are a doughty Second Mate (George Walsh, rather ineffectual and obviously no match for either of the nasties.) and a fiery Latina temptress (Dorothy Burgess) whom Beery is ditching for Ms Murray — and who will not go gentle into the tropical night.

   Well we’ve all had relationships like that, haven’t we? In this case, it leads to a rather predictable comeuppance for Beery and Love. A pity that, because they were the liveliest part of the whole enterprise.

   The Last Alarm is a quieter affair altogether, despite reams of fiery stock footage to pad out the plot of aging an Fire Department Captain (J Farrell MacDonald) put out to pasture just as a serial arsonist begins terrorizing the city — cue stock footage of massive conflagrations, none of which seem terribly exciting because they’re all done in grainy long-shot. From time to time we cut to cynical reporters, the Chief demanding action from the Arson Squad, and old MacDonald grumbling about being old and useless. Big whoop, as the kids say.

   (Do the kids still say that? “Big whoop?”)

   But about this time George Pembroke comes into his own as the Mad Fire-Bug, and the scenes of him peering through his thick spectacles, cackling over his latest atrocity, or going all googly-eyed when someone lights a pipe are the stuff of real old-school, full-blooded villainy, and a pleasure to behold.

   So what we’ve got here is two bad movies that I kind of enjoyed. I can’t recommend either of them to any serious film buff, but those of us who recall the works of Willian K Everson, will feel a pleasant twinge of nostalgic fun.

   

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

   

   In a column from a few years back I discussed the Maigret short stories that Georges Simenon wrote in the late 1930s, the years just before the outbreak of World War II. There were very few such stories during the war years but, sandwiched between several non-series books, we find a total of six Maigret novels, which are all worth some attention.

   We have to keep in mind, of course, that Simenon wrote them in France when that country was first threatened and then occupied by the Nazis. It was an unwritten rule during these years that every novel, story and film had to be set, explicitly or by implication, back in the tranquil Thirties. (For the impact of this rule on the French film industry, which was totally controlled by Germany during the occupation years, I refer you to my friend Tony Williams’ 2018 essay “The Silence of the Noir” in FILM NOIR PROTOTYPES: ORIGINS OF THE MOVEMENT, ed. Alain Silver & James Ursini.) This is certainly true of Simenon’s wartime fiction, whether stand–alone novels or Maigrets.

***

   A few months into 1939, Simenon and his then wife and their newborn son moved to Nieul-sur-Mer, a village about six kilometers from the seaport city of La Rochelle. That was the family’s home at the time Hitler invaded his neighbors and it was there that he wrote the final two Maigret short stories. (All the later Maigrets at less than novel length are too long to be described as short stories.) Both tales first appeared in the weekly Sept Jours and were collected after the war in MAIGRET ET LES PETITS COCHONS SANS QUEUE (Presses de la Cité, 1950).

   “L’homme dans le rue” (Sept Jours, 15 & 22 December 1940, as “Le prisonnier dans la rue”) is a tale of pure atmosphere, with a plot all but non-existent. On a freezing Sunday night a well-to-do physician is shot to death in the Bois de Boulogne. A few days later Maigret has an announcement published in the newspapers that an arrest has been made and that a reconstruction of the crime will take place early the next morning.

   With the arrestee played by a small-time criminal known as P’tit Louis (perhaps the same Louis who appears in several other Simenons and perhaps not), the reconstruction is held, with Maigret’s men planted all over the Bois to check out anyone who seems unduly interested.

   Attention quickly focuses on one man and the chase begins, “a chase which was to go on for five days and five nights, through a city that was unaware of it, among hurrying pedestrians, from bar to bar, from bistro to bistro, Maigret and his detectives taking it in turns pursuing this solitary man and becoming, in the end, as exhausted as their quarry.”

   After Maigret plants another story in the papers, this one completely false, the man gives up and confesses — -no, he is not the murderer — and the story ends. It first appeared in English as “Inspector Maigret Pursues” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1967), and was collected under its original title “The Man in the Street” in MAIGRET’S CHRISTMAS (Hamish Hamilton 1976, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1977). In English, by the way, P’tit Louis becomes Louis the Kid.

   If nothing else, “Vente à la Bougie” (Sept Jours, 20 & 27 April 1941) is a sterling example of unity of time and place, consisting of a single scene in a single setting, an isolated country inn in the middle of the marshes of the Vendée, although describing the tale requires me to break those unities.

   On the evening before a local farm is to be auctioned off on a cash-only basis, apparently for non-payment of debts and taxes, two wealthy peasants come to the inn with large sums of money for the bidding. Near midnight one of these men is found in his room with his skull fractured, his mattress on fire and his well-stuffed wallet missing.

   Maigret, presently head of the crime squad in Nantes (a position he never held except in this story), comes alone, believe it or not, to investigate. There are seven suspects: the innkeeper (who happens to be an ex-convict), his fat paramour, a teen-age servant girl, the farmer who was about to lose his property, the other potential buyer, and two locals.

   Recognizing that the case depends on why the mattress was set on fire, Maigret makes the seven re-enact their moves on the fatal evening over and over. As usual in Simenon, the reader has no chance to beat the Commissaire to the solution, which involves an insurance policy of a sort that, if it ever existed, must have been unique to France: the insured is paid off if he lives to age 50!

   The tale appeared in English as “Inspector Maigret Directs” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March 1967) and, like the one before it, was collected in MAIGRET’S CHRISTMAS. In case you were wondering, “Vente à la Bougie” literally means sale by candlelight, which has somehow, don’t ask me how, come to mean an auction.

***

   In December 1939 Simenon wrote the earliest of the six wartime Maigret novels, LES CAVES DU MAJESTIC, which wasn’t published in the U.S. until 1978 (as MAIGRET AND THE HOTEL MAJESTIC). The title seems to be a tip of the beret to Simenon’s friend and admirer André Gide (1869-1951) and his 1914 novel (which he refused to call a novel) LES CAVES DU VATICAN.

   The basement of this luxe Paris hotel (which, according to www.trussel.com, a gem of a website if ever there was one, was modeled on the Claridge in the same city) has more to do with Simenon’s plot than the caverns underneath the Vatican with Gide’s, but in neither work are the caves central as those beneath the Paris Opera House are in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

   The Maigret novel opens early one morning as a breakfast chef at the Majestic discovers the strangled body of a wealthy American woman in a basement locker and soon finds himself the prime suspect. Maigret discovers — Simenon doesn’t bother to tell us how — that the woman was French by birth and had been a semi-pro hooker in Cannes before she met an American millionaire and tricked him into marriage. In time the plot morphs from sexual to financial intrigue, and at the climax Maigret uncharacteristically punches the murderer in the nose.

   Here and elsewhere in middle-period Maigret, Simenon seems to stress plot more than earlier or later, although Ellery Queen-style fair play is still not his cup of café au lait. Writing at white heat as he did, he slips here and there; for example, a police report in Chapter One gives the age of the dead woman’s maid as 42, but when Maigret gets to meet her much later in the book she’s described as an old lady.

   What makes LES CAVES rough going in spots for American readers is that either the translator or the publisher was very careless with punctuation, sometimes forgetting to insert a new set of quote marks to indicate a new speaker, at other times inserting new marks although the speaker hasn’t changed.

   And one tends to get heartily sick of hearing Maigret ask “What’s he (or she) saying?” whenever a character speaks English and of hearing American characters ask the same question whenever Maigret or someone else speaks French.

   Still and all, I liked this book. After reading tons of Simenons in which Maigret simply absorbs people and atmospheres and at the appropriate moment tells us who did what, it’s a pleasure to find one in which he acts a bit more like a detective.

***

   A month later, in January 1940, Simenon wrote LA MAISON DU JUGE (translated as MAIGRET IN EXILE, 1978). Thanks to a shake-up at the Police Judiciaire, Maigret has been transferred to Luçon, in the Vendée. After vegetating there for a few months he is visited by an old woman from the village of l’Aiguillon, some six kilometers from Luçon, a tiny place where the main occupation is mussel-gathering.

   Her husband, a retired customs inspector who had met Maigret in the past, has sent her to tell him that a few days earlier, while on a ladder pruning one of his fruit trees, he had seen a dead body on the floor of a second-story room in the house back-to-back with his own, a house owned by a retired judge named Forlacroix. The body is now no longer where it was, and the suspicion is that the judge is going to drag it out and toss it into the sea as soon as the tide is high enough.

   Maigret comes to l’Aiguillon, joins the old customs inspector’s surveillance, and watches the judge setting out to do precisely what it was suspected he was about to do. Thus begins the investigation, not only of the judge but of his mentally disturbed daughter, his violent-tempered estranged son, and a tough local mussel-gatherer who was sneaking visits to the house for sex with the daughter.

   As usual, Maigret reaches the truth by intuition, coming close to making us doubt he’s a detective. Even though the bedroom of the judge’s daughter adjoins the room where the corpse was first seen, he never bothers to interrogate her: one conversation with her would have ended the book then and there.

   Simenon even allows the judge to exit the scene halfway through the novel by confessing to a 20-year-old murder and having himself put in prison, without any formalities, any trial, rien ne va plus. I find it hard to believe that under French law at the time this was, shall we say, kosher.

   The vividly evoked atmosphere that we usually find in Simenon is conspicuous by its thinness. The English translation has flaws of its own, playing so fast and loose with French accent marks that the cedilla under the c in Luçon, which signifies that the letter is pronounced soft as in Lucy rather than hard as in lucky, is perhaps best described as now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t. By any measure this is certainly one of the lesser Maigrets.

***

   That Simenon managed to do any writing at all during the tumultuous year 1940 is something of a miracle. Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in May. Simenon, a Belgian citizen though residing in France for more than fifteen years, expected to be drafted.

   He went by train to Paris but, on consulting with the Belgian embassy, he was directed to serve as unofficial high commissioner for the thousands of Belgian refugees pouring into his part of France. He tackled this job with the manic energy he devoted to writing. When did he eat? When did he sleep? his colleagues wondered.

   After three hectic months he closed the reception center he had created and returned to Nieul and his career. A few months later he and his family moved further inland to Fontenay-le-Comte, not far from Luçon where Maigret had been stationed in LA MAISON DU JUGE. He rented part of a huge château recently vacated by the Nazis and, in December, resurrected his signature character.

   In CÉCILE EST MORTE (translated as MAIGRET AND THE SPINSTER, Hamish Hamilton 1977, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1977) Maigret is back in Paris and in his office on the Quai des Orfèvres, working on a case involving a Polish gang that seems to date this novel contemporaneously with the 1938 short story translated as “Stan the Killer.”

   During this period he’s been visited several times by a dowdy and sheeplike young woman with the complaint that someone has been sneaking by night into the fifth-floor apartment she shares with her widowed and near-bedridden aunt: someone who disturbs various items of furniture but never takes anything.

   As the novel begins she’s waiting for Maigret on yet another morning, but by the time he arrives and is ready to see her she’s vanished, leaving behind a frantic note. Alarmed, he visits the woman’s apartment building and finds her aunt, who in fact owned the building, strangled to death. Later that day the missing niece is also found dead, in a broom closet in the Palais du Justice building, which is connected with the Police Judiciaire by a glass door.

   Among the most likely suspects in the aunt’s murder are a penniless nephew whose wife is about to give birth and a disbarred lawyer suspected of child molestation who occupies the apartment just below the dead woman’s. Maigret soon learns that Aunt Juliette was a miser who kept a fortune in thousand-franc notes hidden in her apartment, that she treated her niece Cécile as more or less a slave, and that, at the behest of her ex-lawyer tenant, she had become whole or part owner of several brothels.

   As the case proceeds, Maigret’s superior asks him to let a visiting Pennsylvania criminologist tag along with him on the investigation. The Yank adds nothing to the plot but helps expand the book to its proper length. Maigret is given a chance to explain his methods — which boil down to the simple sentence “I feel things” — and also to introduce the American to French cuisine, like cèpes à la bordelaise and coq au vin, washed down with Beaujolais and, later, with coffee and Armagnac. (Cèpes are wild mushrooms, also known as porcini.)

   The book ends with the truth discovered (although one discovery generates a thorny legal issue in which Simenon has no interest but which those who dote on such matters and don’t mind having part of the plot spoiled for them can find discussed by clicking here) and the Parisian and the Philadelphian getting tipsy together. Thanks to its rich atmosphere and vivid character sketches, CÉCILE ranks very high among the cases of Europe’s most famous detective.

***

   These first three wartime Maigrets were not published separately like all the previous books in the series but in a single 528-page omnibus, MAIGRET REVIENT (1942). They appeared in the U.S. in individual volumes decades later.

   Between 1941 and 1943 Simenon wrote three more book-length Maigrets, which appeared in France in an even larger omnibus volume, plus one short novel about the Commissaire which is accessible in English only on the Web. These we’ll save for another column.

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