RARA-AVIS: REVIEW: Maigret and the Man on the Bench

From: Mario Taboada ( matrxtech@yahoo.com)
Date: 27 Aug 2003

Maigret and the Man on the Bench by Georges Simenon translated from the French by Eileen Ellenbogen Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975 French edition originally published in 1953 as "Maigret et l'homme du banc"

A man is found stabbed to death in a dark alley in a busy Parisian district. He lived with his wife and daughter in a faraway suburb, and is identified as the former foreman at a local wholesale warehouse. The shoes and the tie that the man is wearing are wrong and the amount of money found in his wallet is far more than he usually carried, says the wife. Inspector Maigret is in charge of the case. The weather in Paris is foul.

While at first things point to a street mugging, Maigret and his team slowly start to uncover one anomaly after another in this ordinary man's life. Even though he had never changed the hours of his daily commute to Paris, it turns out that he had in fact lost his job three years before.

Witnesses report seeing him sitting on benches during work hours. The shoes and tie are not accounted for by his family and point to a place of lodging in the city and to a possible parallel life away from his family. A last element of the puzzle is his source of income, given that he does not seem to have had a job since being fired.

Maigret goes about the investigation in his usual grumbling, world-weary but always professional way. He has taken a strong dislike to the man's wife, a greedy and domineering woman whose main concern is social standing and appearances. The daughter, a tense young woman, has also attracted his attention. Does she have a boyfriend or lover? Who benefited from the man's death? Did the family know he had been fired?

The rest of the novel develops around an analysis of motivations and a careful sifting of details through routine police work. Progress is slow. The wintry weather and depressing ambience are perfectly recreated (as always in Simenon) and match Maigret's attitude step by step. He wants the case to end just like he wants the winter to end
-- that is, without much hope but also without desperation.

In the final chapters, the clues finally begin to converge and a theory emerges. This theory (as usual) Maigret keeps to himself, offering the reader few but sufficient glimpses. In the end, justice is served and nobody is happy.

It is hard not to praise such a well-written procedural. While conceding that this is far from the most exciting stuff I have read recently, I am long past the point of questioning Maigret or Simenon. I read these remarkable series books the way I read the Wall Street Journal: from cover to cover and with the certainty that the story couldn't have been written much better. And I move on. Unless there's another Maigret somewhere within reach.

Note: The translation is exemplary.

Mario Taboada

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