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Maigret Goes To School by Georges Simenon — wine-infused detection

Maigret Goes To School was a disappointment. It’s the 44th book in the Inspector Maigret series and I do wonder whether he was struggling to find inspiration because this isn’t a patch on the other Maigret titles I’ve read.

Simenon despatches Maigret to a village in the Charente Maritime after an appeal for help by the local schoolmaster who suspects he is about to be arrested for murdering the former postmistress. Gastin believes he is seen as the prime suspect purely because he and his wife are regarded as outsiders in the village.

The inspector is intrigued by the man’s protestations that he’s innocent but just as appealing is the prospect of local oysters and white wine that are a speciality of the region.

It doesn’t take long for Maigret to discover that no-one in Saint-André-sur-Mer is shedding any tears over the woman’s death. Generally considered a mean-spirited, venomous creature it’s a miracle no-one had bumped her off years earlier. But this is a village which distrusts all outsiders so they’re not going to go out of their way to help the inspector.

Faced with a dearth of forensic evidence and the undisguised hostility from people like the deputy mayor, Maigret begins to question his involvement in the case.

What was he doing there? A hundred times, in the middle of an investigation, he’d had the same feeling of helplessness or, rather futility. He would find himself abruptly plunged into the lives of people he had never met before, and his job was to discover their most intimate secrets.

He does what he always does in these circumstances: deploy his skills as an observer of human behaviour and psychology. The fact he was brought up in a similar village means he understands the undercurrents, the petty jealousies and rivalries in this small community. His own childhood experiences mean he can also relate to the schoolchildren who may have been witnesses to the shooting.

Maigret arrives, as ever, at the solution through careful questioning, a process which seems to involve a copious amount of alcohol. Maigret wouldn’t be Maigret if he wasn’t taking a glass of wine with his lunch, an aperitif before dinner and a couple of glasses of calvados in the bistro.

But in Maigret Goes To School he starts his drinking earlier than normal. Right after his early morning coffee, he’s thinking longingly of a glass of white wine. Come ten-thirty that day, having a glass or two with the local doctor, he hankering for another because “it seemed about the right time for one.” He’s still at it late at night, quaffing brandies and more wine while learning the gossip from the innkeeper. By the end of the tale however, even Maigret has had enough, finding the “odour of cheap wine sickening.”

As I’ve come to expect from this series, the main characters are deftly drawn, most notably the bunch who spend all day and every day drinking in the inn. The insular world they inhabit is convincing.

In a village, everyone has so many relatives who can die from one moment to the next that they all spend their lives in mourning clothes.

But I found the plot a touch too simple — I won’t claim that I guessed the solution (I so rarely do) but when it’s explained it did feel rather “so what.”

What I missed above all was the atmosphere of Paris. Maigret just doesn’t feel like Maigret if he’s not striding along the Rue de Rivoli amid the deliveries of fruit and vegetables, or sat his desk in the Quai des Orfèvres, discussing cases with Lucas, Janvier and Lapointe. I don’t know how many books Simenon set outside of the city but I think I’ll make a point of checking the location before deciding which title to read.

Maigret Goes To School: Footnotes

This is the 44th title out of the 75 tales written by Simenon that featured his most famous creation. The series began in 1931 and ran for four decades, concluding with Maigret and Monsieur Charles, published in 1972. Simenon called his Maigret output “sketches” to differentiate them from his psychological novels, or romans durs.

Penguin Random House republished all 75 Maigret novels over a period of six years. My copy of Maigret Goes To School is a Penguin Classics Reprint edition from 2017 with translation by Linda Coverdale.

I’m counting this as the third book in my #20booksofsummer22  project.

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