The story goes that when Georges Simenon approached Arthème Fayard publishers to pitch his first detective novels, the reaction he got wasn't what he'd hoped for. As quoted in Lucille Becker's Georges Simenon: 'Maigrets' and the 'romans durs' (Haus Publishing, 2006), they came back with
"It's not a detective novel! It's not a real puzzle! It's not a chess game; it isn't even a good novel because there are neither good nor bad people, there is no love story, and it almost always ends badly ... [Furthermore], your detective is nondescript and not particularly intelligent. You see him seated for hours in front of a glass of beer! He is painfully ordinary!" (41)The reality is that Simenon's Maigret is quite intelligent. He sits. He observes. He drinks a lot of beer while doing both. He lets a roomful of suspects get on each others' nerves until the actual criminal reaches a breaking point. He listens. He makes his way into people's heads so that he can empathize, sympathize and learn what makes them tick, something he manages to do not just with criminals but with everyone concerned. Reading through what readers have to say about him, the inevitable comparison with Poirot or Holmes comes up a number of times, mostly when readers have been disappointed with the Maigret novel they've just read. I don't really read crime fiction solely for plot or action; I could also care less if there's a love story involved, unless it's relevant to the evildoing. I'm like Maigret -- I'm far more interested in the motivating factors that speak to the why.
originally published 1931
translated by David Coward
"It was a war of nerves."
The days are numbered for the prisoner in cell number 11 at the Santé Prison, and he can't believe his luck when on October 15 he is able to walk out of his cell and onto the streets of Paris. Actually, someone had left this convicted double murderer a note three days earlier, letting him know that his door will be left open, and that the guards' attention will be focused elsewhere. The note also contained instructions that he was to follow in making his way out of the prison. What Joseph Heurtin didn't know was that Maigret and the police were not only watching his every move, but had set up his escape. Maigret himself had arrested him, but wasn't completely convinced that he was guilty. As he had said to the examining magistrate, "That man is either mad or he's innocent," and decided he would prove it via an "experiment" to be "morally sure;" he also believes that once out on the streets, Heurtin will lead him to the real culprit since he is sure that the convicted man was not alone at the time of the crime. A man's head is at stake, and Maigret has ten days; once Heurtin walks out of the prison, the clock is ticking.
Maigret has no idea of what he's let himself in for when he finds himself going head-to-head with an adversary whose disturbed psychology and "dangerously sharp intellect" seems tailor made for Maigret's method of getting into his opponents' heads, giving the title of this novel a definite double meaning. Little by little, with some measure of imaginary nail biting I waited for that moment when, with Maigret's help, the bad guy would crack and the "war of nerves" could finally come to an end; only then did I realize how much tension I was holding inside. While some readers found the lack of action to be an issue, the telling flat and in some instances "boring," I found myself so caught up in it that I needed to finish the novel with no interruptions. What happens in A Man's Head so nicely highlights, as Scott Bradfield so aptly describes it in a 2015 essay for The New York Times, that Maigret "rarely solves crimes; instead he solves people," which is precisely why I read and love these books.
Very much recommended for people who are more all about the whys in their crime reading.
|from La Serie Maigret
If you prefer, you can catch the French Maigret series episode based on the novel on MHz, starring Bruno Crémer, my favorite Maigret. The TV version offers a version that is more subdued and sticks closely to the novel.
both are terrific.