Saturday, 2 May 2020


I actually read this Maigret novel, not while in Corona lockdown, but its polar opposite, on a flight from London to Miami, to cover the Super Bowl for the BBC, visit my niece and her new baby, some friends in West Palm Beach and generally enjoy the sunshine. It's easy to forget exactly how perfect Simenon is for travel reading, compact tales that proceed with deliberate energy and are written with an attention to detail in a prose that makes such detail clear.

So clear, in fact, that I was reminded of a time in the Eighties when I sat on a prize jury for sports documentaries, the Golden Shot (yes, a gold-plated shot-put ball was the trophy) in the Slovene resort town of Portoroz. The winning documentary was a French film about a French sailboat crossing the Atlantic. It was not my pick, partly because its best feature seemed to be the arguments among the crew, even in mid-storm, about what was to be served for dinner, how it should be cooked and what wine to drink with it, which in retrospect was probably what sold it to my fellow (European) judges. 

So too with Maigret. The wine-merchant whose murder Maigret investigates is a tough, self-made man and inveterate womanizer, the kind of man who generates no lack of suspects. This was published in 1970, it is a time of change in France, but part of Simenon's observations point out clearly that many morés remained unchanged. Not least meals. Indeed, although Maigret is bothered by the flu throughout the story, his appetite barely wanes; at one point, late at night and feeling sick, the prospect of Madame Maigret's choucroute forces him to remind her 'and don't forget the salt pork'. Similarly, even the toughest case can wait for veal blanquette at the Brasserie Dauphine.

I can't help but feel Simenon drawing a parallel between those two French obsessions, food and love, but it's most interesting in the area where the two intersect. Though not as interesting in the area where the latter intersects with respectability. Maigret's discomfort with the upper classes, apparent in the interviews he conducts, is set against the characters from the rest of his world, drawn more vividly with the feel of a Victor Hugo. The contrast between Madame Chabot, in her house off Place Des Voges and in her chauffeur-driven car, with Madame Pigou, wife of Chabot's accountant, in her messy apartment in Monmartre, could not be clearer.

But as ever, it is this sensitivity which makes Maigret stand out, and in this case, it's his personal relation with the killer, his seeming empathy, that makes the story so involving, and its resolution so moving, despite its outwardly seeming matter of fact or anti-climactic. Many of us prefer the understated Simenon, whose eye for details draws us more deeply into the crime, and its solution.

Maigret and the Wine Merchant by Georges Simenon

translated by Ros Schwartz

Penguin Classics, £7.99, ISBN 9780241304260

This review will also appear at Crime Time (

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