Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"As Flat and Artificial as a Picture Postcard?" Maigret in Holland (1931), by Georges Simenon


Maigret had only a faint idea of what it was all about when he arrived one May afternoon in Delfzijl, a small town squatting on the low coast in the extreme northeast of the Netherlands....

So begins one of my favorite Maigret mysteries by that publishing phenomenon Georges Simenon (1903-1989).

Un Crime en Holland is the eighth of ten (ten!) Maigret crime novels Simenon published in 1931, although it was not published in English until 1940, under the title of, naturally enough, A Crime in Holland, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury.  Since 1980 it has been published in Britain and the United States under the title Maigret in Holland, evidently in an attempt to distinguish  the novel as one of the Maigret series, rather than one of Simenon's roman durs, or hard ("noir") novels (note: the publishing history detail above is drawn from the fantastic Maigret website).

Why do I like this novel so much?  Three reasons, I think: first, Simenon's portrayal of the Dutch setting; second, the novel's resemblance to a classical British mystery, which is much more pronounced than what one usually encounters in the Maigret series; and third, though the novel is written in Simenon's rather spare early style (and a new English translation is badly needed), there is in it some interesting character psychology and wit.

Maigret is in Holland semi-officially, to look into the shooting death of a native that has involved a French citizen, Professor Jean Duclos, a distinguished criminologist traveling on a lecture tour through northern Europe.  On page two, we are given a list provided by Duclos to Maigret of the victim, Conrad Popinga, a teacher of cadets on the training ship at Delfzijl, and potential suspects in the killing: Liesbeth Popinga, his wife, daughter of the headmaster of a lycee in Amsterdam; Any van Elst, Liesbeth's younger sister, a would-be professional woman recently awarded a law degree; and Beetje Liewens, a nearby farmer's daughter.

Maigret soon discovers additional suspects, including the father of the fetching Beetje and Cornelius ("Cor"), a cadet on the training ship possibly infatuated with her.  Then there are the actual material clues, the butt of a Manila cigar and a sailor's cap left at the scene of the crime....Could the killer have been someone from Popinga's past life as a captain in the merchant service?

This is one Maigret that actually could have used a house floor plan (plans are referred to in the text, but we never see them).  Popinga was shot outside his house by someone, the police believe, in the house. The logistics of who was where when come under serious scrutiny; and they do matter, though Maigret seems to discount those clues of the cap and the cigar and psychology plays an important role in his deductions.  In the closing chapters Maigret even stage manages a reenactment of the night of the murder.

When writing Maigret in Holland Simenon seems to have been thinking of the more classical style, clue-oriented English detective novel, for in the book he includes satire about the methodical, materialistic, scientific detective, as represented by the criminologist, Professor Duclos. The Great Man condescends to Maigret at every turn. Simenon portrays Duclos as a pompous ass of an intellectual, arrogantly certain that he can reduce crime investigation to an exact scientific formula.  We enjoy seeing him naturally getting his ultimate comeuppance at the hands of Maigret.

Maigret in Holland also is of interest for Simenon's portrayal of the straitlaced, conservative, bourgeois Dutch community in which Maigret uncomfortably finds himself. Fans of classical English detection often maintain that the incongruity of murder in genteel surroundings heightens reader interest in the story, and I think Maigret in Holland supports this contention. Certainly Simenon himself through his character Maigret seems to express such a point of view:

Georges Simenon
Such quiet, such serenity--it was almost too perfect, so perfect that it was difficult for a Frenchman to believe that life here was life at all.  Was it?  Or was it all as flat and artificial as a picture postcard?

Turning his back on that scene to study the town, [Maigret] was faced by well-built, well-painted houses, windows beautifully clean, curtains spotless, cactuses on every windowsill.  But what was behind those windows?

Raymond Chandler thought murder needed to be taken out of the Venetian vase and dropped into the alley, but what happens when murder shatters one of those fine Venetian vases (or perhaps in this case we should say a Delft vase)?  Maigret of course eventually answers the question of what messy things went on behind those pristine Dutch windows--to his own satisfaction, if not that of the local inhabitants:

Early next morning Maigret took the 5:05 from the small station at Delfzijl.  He was alone. Nobody had thanked him. Nobody had come to see him off.


4 comments:

  1. I've enjoyed many of the Maigret novels (and I'm about due for another one) - this sounds like it would be perfect for my tastes. Thanks for the review and pointer!

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  2. I read this book a long time ago, and remember loving it. There's also a statue of Maigret in Delfzijl. If you Google for "Maigret" in combination with "Delfzijl" or "standbeeld" you get a ton of pictures.

    Dutch mystery writer Appie Baantjer was also a big fan of Maigret and said of his literary father the following: "...with Maigret he created a believable policeman, even though he was never with the police himself." Baantjer was an ex-policeman/homicide cop and knew what he was talking about.

    Curt, have you ever read a novel by Appie Baantjer? If you're interested, I have one review and a biography posted over at my blog.

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  3. Les,

    thanks and yes this one did appeal to my tidy mind!

    TomCat,

    thanks, I will read him on your recommendation.

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  4. By which I mean Baantjer! He's not Scandinavian ;) , but he sounds interesting.

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