Thursday, 8 June 2017
Maigret is like barium – an iridescent dye introduced into the body to reveal its operations and frailties. In many of the novels, he uses a long, slow, steady process of immersion in the setting of the crime in order to understand what might have been the motivation of the criminal – an understanding which is the precondition for his being able to identify and ultimately apprehend him or her. This occurs in, for instance, The Carter of ‘La Providence’, Maigret in Holland and Maigret in New York. In Maigret Takes a Room, Maigret literally inserts himself into the scene of the crime by taking a room in a boarding-house from which he suspects a crime or series of crimes may have been orchestrated.
What makes this so potent, both morally and emotionally, is that Maigret has just a tiny bit of the malaise affecting the residents of the boarding-house in which he takes that room. His wife has been called away from Paris, and he is alone at home – a condition he abhors. We witness his desultory attempts to divert himself after office hours and sense the relief he must feel when a new case calls for his attention. It is triggered, however, by the shooting of his lieutenant Janvier, and he feels an almost paternal sense of guilt at having sent his favourite assistant (perhaps a surrogate son) on an assignment that has put him in the way of danger.
To get to the bottom of the problem, Maigret – unconventionally – takes the room in the boarding-house that appears in some way to be the source of the violence. Even as he does so, however, he wonders whether he is fleeing his empty flat and seeking the care of another woman in the absence of his wife – not least because the owner of the boarding-house, a spinster called Mme Clément, has an extremely warm and caring nature and enjoys looking after her boarders.
The plot, which is extremely complex, involves a series of love relationships, marriages and domestic arrangements connected to the boarding-house which, Mme Clément insists, is full of lovely people. Gushy as she is, it is easy to suspect that the boarding-house is a front for some other, much more sinister, operation. But this turns out not to be the case: Mme Clément may be an eccentric in some ways, but she is quite genuine, something of a surrogate mother to the various waifs and strays to whom she offers a home, on whose rental payments she is actually not dependent, as she has an independent income. (It transpires that she has deliberately eschewed marriage in order to remain her own master.)
So the whole book, while on one level being about a crime the solving of which leads to the discovery of another crime, is actually an examination of how people live together domestically, and it questions the bourgeois marital format to which Maigret, for all his unconventionality in other areas, is so tenaciously wedded. For Maigret is so unhappy in his dependence on his wife when his wife is not present within the framework of the normal existence together, whereas the quirky and utterly independent Mme Clément is really very serene in her self-chosen solitude. Between these two poles, we see a range of people, some of them single and others married, struggling to build a life and a home in the city that, with the exception of Mme Clément, is essentially indifferent to their experience. It is a masterly analysis of what it means to have a house and home, to love and be loved – not least because it raises more questions than it answers.
Post image: Bruno Crémer as Jules Maigret, Antenne 2