This is my review of Maigret Et Le Corps Sans Tete (Ldp Simenon) by Georges Simenon.
The propeller of an overladen canal barge catches up a package containing the severed hairy arm of a man, a novelty since it is usually women who are cut up and thrown in the Seine. The rest of the corpse is brought to the surface by a wonderfully named “schaphandrier” or diver, apart from the head which would reveal the victim’s identity.
After a diet of frenetic modern detective thrillers which seek to set an ever-moving goalpost for ingenious , often extreme, violence, no holds barred sex and ever more cynical and amoral detectives, it makes a pleasant change to be reminded of the slow-paced world of le commissaire Maigret, in which police practice and the painstaking collection of evidence in a DNA-free world are described meticulously. There is always time for a glass or two of wine or spirits, and he always remembers to phone his wife if he is likely to be too late home to eat the cassoulet she has prepared.
Although the plots may be slight and lacking in high drama or dramatic chases, Maigret thinks himself into the psyche of suspected victims and murderers, trying to understand the motivations behind a crime. If someone tells him the answer, he feels rather peeved, but convinced he could have worked it out for himself.
I also like the description of the atmosphere of the police station and the politics of the workplace – the over-cautious “juge d’instruction” who puts pressure on Maigret to make arrests before he is ready. He would prefer to leave the suspects to stew a little, worrying over whether they will be caught and more likely to make slips and give themselves away.
To add to the unexpected subtlety of the writing , there is the atmosphere of 1950s Paris – the dusty bistro with its canvas sunshade and influx of customers when the factory shift ends, the butcher who will look after a suspect’s cat provided it doesn’t fight with his own, the shrewish concierge who rushes to the defence of the neat widower who cannot possibly be a murderer , the bartenders keen to close up after selling liqueur brandies into the small hours, the ramble along the banks of the Seine in a vain attempt to walk of the effects of too much alcohol.
Although I found the ending a little flat and abrupt, the slow path towards it engrossed me completely, plus I learned a good deal of clear, well-expressed, verlan-free French.