As I look back at more than a decade of these weekly podcast reviews, I find myself surprised sometimes at some of my own choices - the books and authors I choose to feature here or on the Classic Mysteries podcast. One author to whom I feel I should really pay more attention is the Belgian author Georges Simenon, an astoundingly prolific writer. His detective, Inspector Jules Maigret of the Parisian Sûreté, appears in more than six dozen mysteries written between 1931 and 1972. The first Maigret book which I reviewed on the podcast nearly a decade ago was The Bar on the Seine, also known as The Tavern by the Seine or The Two-Penny Bar. According to the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, this book was one of an astonishing eleven Simenon novels published in that same year. At the time when I wrote this review, most of Simenon's novels were out of print in the United States. That's no longer the case - Penguin has been re-publishing the Maigret novels in new (and, from what I've seen, very good) translations, and they are now using The Two-Penny Bar as the title for this one. Here's what I had to say in my original podcast review of The Bar on the Seine, edited to remove my comments about the book's unavailability at the time:
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The year is 1931. It is summertime in Paris, hot enough to melt the asphalt pavement. A determined police inspector must track down the details and the perpetrator of a murder that may have taken place six years earlier – a murder that never came to the attention of the police. How he does this – and what he learns – is told in The Bar on the Seine, by Georges Simenon.
Over the course of a long and prolific career, Georges Simenon wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories about Police Inspector Jules Maigret. He remains enormously popular in France.
The Maigret stories are police procedurals – not the enormously complex, DNA-evidence-laden novels of today. Rather they are stories of Maigret’s thorough investigations, backed by the force and science that a then-still-primitive big-city police department could provide. And, above all else, they are psychological dramas, for Maigret studies his criminal opponents and, very frequently, that study of their psychological makeup will lead him to the perpetrator.
The Bar on the Seine, dating from 1931, is one of the earliest Maigret novels, but it has many of the ingredients that became so familiar over the years. It begins with a touch of that psychology: Maigret is talking to a condemned criminal, who is to be beheaded the next morning for murder. That criminal remarks that he knows of another man whose head should be on the block – a man who got away with murder six years earlier. He will not reveal the man’s name to Maigret, telling him only that he will find the murderer at a bar on the Seine, named La Guinguette à deux sous.
Maigret has never heard of the place. Nor, it quickly develops, has anyone else on the police force. By coincidence, however, Maigret happens to be in a shop and overhears someone talking about La Guinguette à deux sous. He follows the man, a middle-class factory owner, who goes first to an assignation with a mistress, and then on to the bar. It turns out to be in a Parisian suburb, a place used as a weekend escape by a group of middle-class Parisians, all of whom know each other, and all of whom have been going to this bar on weekends and on vacations, for more than six years.
Maigret himself is supposed to be going on vacation, as all of Paris empties out in the heat of summer. Instead, he begins visiting the bar and learning about the customers – and trying, all the while, to figure out if, as he was told, one of these customers was responsible for an as-yet unidentified murder.
There will soon be a death. Curiously enough, though, that is of less interest to Maigret than the mystery about what might have happened six years earlier. It is a riddle that he will put together, painstakingly, piece by piece, until the true story is eventually revealed. Some of the answers will come to Maigret by coincidence and by luck. More will be uncovered by routine detective work – and by his own skillful analysis of the psychology of the people who surround him.
These psychological games are at the heart of many Maigret novels. It has been observed, correctly, I think, that many of Simenon’s books could have been written by Raymond Chandler – although remember, please, that Simenon was writing before Chandler began, and The Bar on the Seine predates any published Chandler by at least a couple of years. But the two shared a love for moral ambiguity and a focus on the psychology of the characters involved. And both, certainly, wrote of the mean streets, often with a compassion that could surprise and move the reader. In Simenon’s novels, Maigret often has enormous sympathy for the criminal – even as he moves to uncover and arrest him. You may want to keep that in mind as you read The Bar on the Seine. It is a short book, one that can easily be read in a couple of hours.
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[POST EDITED to correct Simenon's nationality from French to Belgian. Mes excuses!]
You can listen to the original audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast by clicking here.
Next week: The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie.