My Favourite Crime Novels 24

Maigret And The Idle Burglar by Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon’s critical reputation is based mostly on his Roman Durs (Dirty Snow, The Strangers in the House, The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By to name but a few), dark, bleak novels that aren’t afraid to leave the reader dazed and confused. Their endings are never happy and even the few faint glimmers of hope that briefly light up the lives of the main characters are extinguished at the end. Abandon all hope those who enter here seems to be the main theme of these dark, cold, beautiful masterpieces.

However, his success as a writer (hundreds of millions of books sold) is based on his Maigret novels. The detective walked the Paris streets for many years solving cases and drinking lots of beers and calvados. His method of solving cases was not by deductive reasoning or amazing genius but by observation and absorption. When he entered a room Maigret seemed to suck up the atmosphere and the relationships between the suspects like a sponge. He might not have had the brain power of Sherlock Holmes, but he was no slouch in the brain department and unlike Doyle’s creation he wasn’t an insufferable know-it-all (I know exactly who I’d rather sit with in a pub for a beer). Maigret was also happily married, not some loner with addictions and relationship problems (which is why he feels fresher than many of the cliched detectives who followed in his wake). However, the novels are not cosy, comfortable things. Whilst they may be a lot warmer than the Roman Durs they do share some of their darkness. None more so than Maigret and the Idle Burglar, which is up there with the Roman Durs in my opinion.

A burglar is found battered to death on a night in Paris. He was murdered, stripped of all ID and thrown from a car on to the icy street, yet his criminal background has Maigret’s superiors eager to dismiss it as an underworld thing and brush it away. They are more concerned with solving a high-profile case involving a gang of armed robbers. The thing is Maigret doesn’t quite buy the underworld vendetta angle and starts finding out a few things about the burglar and also the Parisian upper-classes, none of which are particularly to his liking.

The beauty of the novel, aside from Simenon’s awesome, tight, spare prose, is in how Simenon uses the novel to attack both the upper-classes, who disguise their feral, grasping nature behind money and pretensions, and an increasingly bureaucratic police force obsessed with solving big crimes and treating crime as figures. The other great beauty of this novel lies in the fact that Maigret solves both cases, though only one is ever solved to his satisfaction. The dark ending leaves Maigret knowing who the murderer of the burglar is but with no way of ever proving it. Of all the Maigret novels this one is my favourite – superb.

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