Saturday, August 22, 2020

Maigret, again: The Grand Banks Café and The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin

"...understand and judge not." 

I've recently been making my way through Ellroy's LA Quartet, and after finishing The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere, I grabbed LA Confidential  from the shelf, opened to page one and just put it back.  I think my brain was telling me that I'd had too much for the moment and that it was time to take a break.  I knew exactly what I wanted to read -- Maigret.  These books are like reading comfort food for me.  

Penguin, 2014
originally published as Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas, 1931
translated by David Coward
154 pp


"If anyone asked me what the distinctive feature of this case is...I'd say it has the mark of rage on it."

It's June, which is normally vacation time for the Maigrets.  Every year they make their way to a village in Alsace, where La Madame spends her time with family "making jam and plum brandy."  There's a change of plan this year though,  as Maigret asks his wife what she thinks about making a trip and staying by the sea.  The destination he has in mind is Fécamp, a small seaside town north of Le Havre, and he tells his wife that they'll be "able to just take it easy at Fécamp as anywhere else."  While "objections were raised,"  it's a done deal: Maigret has received a letter from an old friend there asking for help for a former pupil of his, Pierre Le Clinche, who has been arrested for the murder of a ship's captain. 

Once in Fécamp, Maigret makes his way to the Grand Banks Cafe, where he finds the crew of the recently-returned Océan, whose captain had been found floating in the harbour just hours after the ship had docked.  He learns that the "evil eye" had been cast over the ship even before it had sailed -- a sailor had broken a leg while waving goodbye to his wife, the ship's boy was "washed overboard by a wave," the captain had seemingly gone mad, along with other disasters including rotting cod.  The sailors, however, are reluctant to talk to Maigret about their voyage; he is told only that it might not be a bad idea to  "chercher la femme," which, without spoiling anything here, turns out be sound advice.    It seems that other than picking up a couple of scattered clues here and there,  Maigret is stumped -- no one even remotely involved with the case, including Le Clinche,  will say anything.  The only thing he knows is that the case "has the mark of rage on it." 

The answers, when they come, are put together slowly; once again, the focus is more on the "why" of it all rather than the who, one of the key characteristics of a Maigret novel, or at least of those I've read so far.  As with all of these books, Simenon, via his detective, ventures into the often dark territory of human nature and psychology to arrive at his conclusion.  This time around the "why" is a true jaw dropper, and once the answer is revealed, the question to be asked here centers around the nature of guilt.  This one is well worth your time; don't breeze through it even though it's a scant 153 pages. 

Penguin, 2014
originally published as La Danseuse du Gai-Moulin, 1931
translated by Siân Reynolds
153 pp, paperback

"It's a banal case, in spite of its morbid nature and apparent complexity." 

As much as I enjoyed The Grand Banks Cafe, the better book is The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, which completely threw me off pretty much from the start for more than one reason, and goes to show that sometimes going rogue is not a bad thing.  

There's something about a crime novel set in the seedier parts of a city that appeals, and this one is no exception.  Here it's the seamier side of Liège, which in real life is Simenon's home town, where the action takes place.  A plot to rob the till after everyone leaves the club Gai-Moulin goes awry when two teens, Delfosse and Chabot, stumble over a body on the floor of the club in the darkness.  A match is lit, and they are sure the body is that of the obviously-wealthy man they referred to as "the Turk", a stranger who had come into the club earlier that night, had bought champagne, and had been entertained by the dancer Adèle.    Needless to say they're petrified and take off.  The next day, a very rattled Chabot happens to see a newspaper article about a body found in a laundry basket on the lawn of the Botanical Gardens; surprised to say the very least,  the two meet up.  It's then that they realize they're being followed, but they make their way to the Gai-Moulin, as it would be completely normal for them to be there.   Strangely they discover that everything is like it always is, but they make yet another plan which very quickly goes horribly awry.  That is really all I'm going to say about plot because really, to know any more ahead of time will completely spoil the enjoyment of reading this book, which is so very different from all of the Maigret novels preceeding this one.   

While Simenon's series novels tend to get middling ratings from many readers, he's one of my favorite crime writers ever.   When I want to read something deeply noirish, I turn to his romans durs, but when I want something a bit on the lighter side it's definitely Maigret.   With Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, he offers a plot that may be somewhat incredulous, but when it comes right down to it, I just didn't care that he wasn't exactly following the mechanics of the typical detective/police novel. In fact, using the term "typical" in describing Maigret just seems wrong.     I was much more taken with the very clever  twists in the story as well as the seedy, noir ambience Simenon paints here, down to the "crimson plush" upholstery of a banquette in the club and the "shabby peignoir" and mules worn by Adèle in her room.   And that reminds me:  don't kid yourself that Adèle, the titular dancer at the Gai-Moulin,  has only a small part to play here.  She may not show up often, but she really does take center stage.   

Only 65 more to go!  I'll get there and probably love every second of  the journey.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Dolores Hitchens X 2: Footsteps in the Night and Beat Back the Tide

(read in July -- I'm so slow these days)

In this perfect pairing of perplexing puzzlers from Stark House Press published in July,  murder rattles skeletons in a number of closets, unlocking and shaking loose secrets both present and past. 

Stark House Press, 2020
277 pp

"These people are all strangers."

Footsteps in the Night (1961) is a whodunit, set in a new housing development in Southern California, more specifically in the hills overlooking Pomona.  It's so new that not all of the houses have been finished, and "everything that's completed or even near it" has been sold.   It seems like an ordinary, upscale neighborhood on the outside, but as Hitchens takes us inside into the lives of some of Dellwood's residents, we discover that there is nothing ordinary about these people at all. Like most people, their secrets are normally kept behind their closed doors, but nothing stays hidden when a young teenaged girl disappears, later to turn up dead.  It also seems as if everyone has made up their minds about who did it,  so it will take a clever Sheriff's lieutenant to not only  sort through and make sense of  the scant clues, but also to weave his way through the secret lives of the Dellwood community to prevent a terrible injustice. 

This is a slow-building, suspenseful and most compelling mystery,  and I changed my mind as to the who more than once before all was revealed.  However, it's the uncovering of everyone's deepest secrets that is the big draw, as the focus here is mainly on the characters.  Some of these people you can feel sorry for, whereas for some of the others, well, let's just say they are likely not people you'd want as your friends.   As Nicholas Litchfield notes in his introduction, there's a wide range including
"... a sex fiend with a conniving, sadistic wife; a bothersome, goofy old grandfather; a middle-aged spinster with a young gigolo for a lover; a sour, short-tempered developer; and a reclusive investment banker and his melancholic, crippled son..."

1961 cover, photo from Amazon
 who "spy on each other, prying into each other's personal business," while dwelling on "their own inadequacies."    And even though there is only one murderer,  as the blurb says, "They're all guilty of something."

sadly and oops, I closed the window (accidently) on the source page for this photo, but I'd found it via ebay/PicClic. 

On to Beat Back the Tide now, which would have made a great film in its day (black and white a plus).   As in Footsteps of the Night,  this story also takes place in Southern California but further south along the coast, and opens with the arrival of young Francesca Warne, a "former schoolteacher, now a nurse," who has come to act as a sort of governess to Jamie Glazer.  The Glazer home sits at the top of a cliff, making it private "for everybody except someone on a ship at sea with a spyglass."  Glazer, a widower,  is a contractor and does very well for himself; as far as Mrs. Warne goes, what he expects from her is a "robot-like efficiency and stamina, and an unrobotlike warmth toward his son.  Just that."  But just after a week, strange incidents occur that upset the household and make Glazer rethink her presence there as he ponders the "disturbing quality about her. An aura, a miasma, of disaster. "  While he tells himself that "she did not appeal to him," he also knows he doesn't really want her to leave, realizing a "bleak solitariness of himself" that "had a kind of death in it."

 I have to say that up to this point (some thirty pages in),  I thought that this novel just  might be taking a bit of a gothic-ish sort of a turn (like those books my mom used to read by Phyllis A. Whitney years ago), but that idea was quickly let go of with the coming of the meat and potatoes of this story:  it seems that Mrs. Warne's husband had been murdered on the beach below the cliff, evidently having been shot from above.  She has come to the Glazer home to learn the truth about her husband's death, about how he was killed and by whom.   Glazer warns her about opening "old wounds," but she reaches out to him for help in solving the murder.  As he begins to look into the murder of Adam Warne, he realizes that pretty much everyone who knew him hated him, so that his killer is not going to be easy to pin down, not to mention that some people believe that the past is the past so Glazer shouldn't be making waves by stirring it all up again.

 I chose the words "perfect pairing" beginning this post on purpose -- in both there is a murder shaking loose a lot of secrets that everyone involved wants to keep hidden; in both there are shifts in points of view from character to character that add insight to respective situations and respective personalities.  In both there are also numerous possible suspects with different motives, and both books have an ending that I didn't see coming.  And oh yes -- both books were selected for the Doubleday Crime Club.    Do not miss author and editor Nicholas Litchfield's most enlightening introduction, where he concludes that these " 'skeletons in the closet' mysteries showcase the author at her very finest."

Recommended to readers of vintage crime, and to readers like myself who truly love discovering women writers not previously read.  I've already started another book from Stark House by Ruth Sawtell Wallis, but we'll save that for when it's published.


My very grateful thanks to the powers that be at Stark House -- you people rock.