Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Bar on the Seine by Georges Simenon

The Bar on the Seine was originally published in 1931. This Penguin edition, translated by David Watson, came out in 2003.

My reading in early works of crime fiction is woefully inadequate which prompted me to buy some of Georges Simenon's novels about the French police detective Inspector Maigret. This is the first I've read in the series which has 75  novels and 28 short stories published between 1931 and 1972. The Bar on the Seine (originally titled La Guinguette à deux sous) is one of the earlier in the series (no. 11) by this prolific author. Based on the strength of this book, this is a series which I will dip into when I need a quick, interesting, and pleasant read.

In The Bar on the Seine, Maigret visits a condemned man on the eve of his execution. The man, Lenoir, tells Maigret that there are others who should also be awaiting the guillotine and describes a murder he observed when sixteen. True to the code of honor among thieves, he won't give Maigret the name of the murderer but does tell him the name of the bar the man frequents, La Guinguette à deux sous.

Maigret takes a stab at checking out the story but can't find the bar and puts it to the side as he prepares to go on holiday. By chance, while trying on a new bowler hat, Maigret overhears another shopper mention that he will be part of a skit held at La Guinguette à deux sous. Holiday notwithstanding, Maigret follows the man to a rendezvous with his mistress then to his home where he collects his family and they drive off along the banks of the Seine. The man, Basso, and his family are among those who have abandoned the heat of Paris in the summer. When the family unloads at a villa, Maigret goes to a nearby inn.
 He enters to check things out but, in an amusing turn, finds himself pulled into a party of friends who have been vacationing together at the same place for years. Though Maigret is a stranger, he is immediately plied with Pernod and made a participant in the evening entertainment. Now Maigret has to find out who committed murder six years ago.

Maigret follows police investigative procedures but his strength is in observing people. Here he applies his keene mind is sussing out the character of the holiday goers, their relationships and interactions. He even develops a friendship of sorts, with James with whom, back in Paris, he consumes a staggering amount of Pernod.

The story moves at a leisurely, though never plodding, pace as Maigret tries to narrow his list of suspects and balance his desire to join his wife on holiday with his policeman's duty.

If this book is an indication, the Maigret stories hold up well after 70+ years and I recommend them as non-violent and character driven. If you enjoy other books written around the same time, such as Agatha Christie, I'd say that the Maigret stories are a must read.