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au rendez-vous des terre-neuvas

3 july 2012

Georges Simenon's 1931 Maigret novel Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas is named after a pub, which fits well with the Commissaire's investigative style. There's little that Jules Maigret can't learn about a murder during an extended night of drinking.

The murder in question comes after its victim has left what looks like a suicide note.

"N'empêche qu'il a été étranglé! Et qu'il est impossible de s'étrangler soi-même!" grommela Maigret. (42)

["Never mind that he was strangled. And that you can't strangle yourself!" grumbled Maigret.]
Even if you could strangle yourself, you would find it hard to throw yourself in the harbor after you were dead, and such is the fate of Octave Fallut, a trig fishing-boat captain who had just arrived home after the voyage from Hell. Everyone has spent the whole expedition (to the Newfoundland banks, hence the "Terre-Neuvas" of the title) at odds with everyone else. A ship's boy has gone overboard, and the catch has spoiled for want of proper salting. What went wrong?

Prime suspect Pierre Le Clinche is in jail awaiting charges, but a mutual friend has asked Maigret to follow the case (as so often, it's out of his jurisdiction), because Le Clinche is a good sort, hardly the murdering type. Like his captain, Le Clinche (the boat's telegraphist) is an orderly personality without much record of aggression; both men are in long-term engagements to marry eminently sensible women.

And that, of course, turns out to be the rub. At the heart of the ship's malaise is Adéle, a femme fatale who, while stringing along a lover ashore, has stowed away in Captain Fallut's cabin for the trip, meanwhile intent on seducing both the young telegraphist and any other officer she can hook. Simenon's attitude toward Adéle and her lovers is the most interesting element of Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas. It's tinged with his customary quasi-misogyny, to some extent. Men only go wrong in this novel when there's a woman in the case. But all three women – the two fiancées and Adéle – come across as self-possessed, independent, and goal-oriented. It's not really their fault if the men in their lives behave like petulant toddlers.

Adéle gets the best line in the book. Goading young Le Clinche almost to the point of suicide, she opines:

Moi, au fond, ce qui me dégoûte, c'est de voir que les gens qui la font à l'honnêteté ne valent pas mieux que nous … (119)

[What really gets me is watching those "upright" people who are no better than we are …]
And she has a certain point. She may taunt her pursuers unnecessarily, but she is the pursued; the men who lock horns over her are sufficient to have stood, though free to fall. And fall they do.

The whole Adéle subplot turns out to be related to the murder mystery, but not to harbor its solution. The killer doesn't even know Adéle; he's in fact the father of the ship's boy. That boy's death was no accident; he knew Adéle was hiding under the captain's bed, and paid for that knowledge with his life. Le Clinche is innocent of both murders, but guilty of covering up his captain's guilt. In the end, Maigret lets the father go. He exacted no more than a just revenge, and the menace that he poses society is minimal. As so often in the more atmospheric policiers, justice is secondary to understanding.

Simenon, Georges. Au Rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas. 1931. Paris: Presses Pocket, 1983.