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un crime en hollande

15 may 2012

The early Maigret novels take place outside of Paris more often than not. Though (having read all the later ones first) I associate Maigret indelibly with six-story apartment buildings, concierges, grey rainy streets, and the Quai des Orfèvres, he started his fictional life seconded here and there to solve crimes in non-Parisian locales. (In fact his professional status is hazy: is he a member of the Brigade Mobile, or a Parisian commissaire, or what exactly?) Doubtless the varied locales of the early Maigret novels come from Simenon's own personal experience. For much of his early life, including the years when he was writing the first Maigrets, the young Belgian writer lived on a houseboat, making the rounds of such northwest-European places you could get to via canal. He had lived in Paris in the 1920s, but would never truly settle there. The later Maigrets are written part from memory, it seems, and part from the "world-building" that Simenon did in the course of creating the earlier Maigret novels, a world-building that comes to feed on and reinforce itself, so that Maigret's Paris is just one of many possible real Parises.

And so it is that one of the more obscure Maigrets, from 1931, is about a crime in Holland, and thus called, straightforwardly enough, Un crime en Hollande. A French professor of criminal justice has been accused of killing a colleague in a remote Dutch village. Professor Duclos is suspect #1, not least because he was found with the murder weapon in his hand just moments after the fatal shot rang out. So he appeals for help from France, and Maigret seems to be first on the duty roster for Helping French Murder Suspects Abroad.

Maigret does even less police procedure than usual in Un crime en Hollande. He basically follows people around. Sometimes they come and talk to him. Simenon's novels don't always show signs of the extreme haste with which he composed them, but Un crime en Hollande is more than typically disjointed. Maigret will break off talking with one suspect because another walks up. In the end he packs it in and assembles the suspects Hercule-Poirot style to take the places they assumed on the night of the murder. Naturally one of them breaks down and confesses.

Not exactly to the delight of the Dutch detectives, though. Once it seems even to them that Professor Duclos is too obvious a suspect, they're in favor of ascribing the crime to some passing sailor who's already on his way to the Indies. It's pretty clear that the real killer is a member of the two or three families most intimately involved in the victim's life, including his own. But as Duclos himself argues, why pursue justice against a one-time, over-ardent domestic killer in an otherwise model community?

L'auteur n'est pas un professionel de l'assassinat et du vol. . . Ce ne'est pas un individu qu'il faut nécessairement mettre à l'ombre pour protéger la société . . . . Il etait préférable pour tout le monde d'annoncer ce soir que l'assassin du professeur est un matelot étranger et que les recherches continueront.

[The perpetrator is not a professional thief or killer. . . He's not someone who necessarily has to be put away to protect the community . . . . It's better for everyone to announce tonight that the professor's killer is a foreign sailor, and that the investigation will go on.] (122, 123)
Misogyny is central to the atmosphere of Un crime en Hollande, and also to the solution of its murder mystery. Maigret is no sooner in the village of Delfzijl than the extremely nubile young Beetje Liewens enlists him in helping a cow deliver a calf. He is immediately sucked into the miasma of sexuality that Beetje represents for every adult male in the novel. Beetje's presence provides the "parfum un peu rance de la petite ville [slightly rancid perfume of the little town]" (131), a self-satisfied enclave of strict Protestantism with lustful hypocrisy festering beneath its veneer. During one long and troubling scene (125-135), Maigret strips away Beetje's protestations of innocence. He's angry at her for attracting men – for attracting him – and he's angry at them for succumbing; he's angry at the older women in Beetje's circle for being ugly, faded, and jealous.

At times, Maigret puts it down to a cultural thing. In France, everyone's so open about sexuality that these murderous situations have no medium in which to breed. But he's French, and he's angry at women in this novel. Misogyny is not something he's picked up like a passport stamp at the Dutch border.

Simenon, Georges. Un crime en Hollande. 1931. Paris: Presses Pocket, 1986.