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la guinguette à deux sous

19 may 2013

La guinguette à deux sous looks to my untrained American eye like a rather elegant title, but it translates to something like "The Two-Bit Roadhouse."

Maigret visits said roadhouse on a whim. A condemned assassin has told him that an even eviller villain hangs out at this venue, and Maigret can't resist following up the tip. Many of the early Maigrets involve the commissioner following an impulse rather than resorting to any known police procedure. Tant mieux that the guinguette serves cheap double Pernods and is full of regulars who like to drink their weekends away.

Murder, as I've noted, follows Maigret around in an anticipation of the best Jessica-Fletcher tradition. He's not at the guinguette very long before one of the regulars is found shot dead – by a revolver in the hands of another who keeps saying he didn't do it. Tell it to the juge, you want to say, but before Maigret can arrest him, the apparent murderer, M. Basso, has escaped and is likely headed for the border.

The rest of the novel is a mix of advanced forensic techniques and old-fashioned drinking. Maigret latches onto the habitué of the guinguette who seems to know where all the bodies are buried, an Englishman named James, and sits around in pubs drinking Pernod with him in order to get a better feel for things. Meanwhile, James has driven off with the murder suspect's wife and son: not in itself a crime, but evidence that he's helped Basso get away, and knows where he's hiding. The police, in a fascinating scene (94-95), analyze the various soils on the tires and fenders of the getaway car, in order to calculate the likeliest hideouts: because fond as he is of his Pernod, James seems to get sharper the more he drinks, and couldn't be less inclined to help Maigret find Basso.

Ultimately, Maigret locks three criminals in a cell and comes back after a while to get two murder confessions out of them. As so often, this doesn't ring true as a story of investigation, but rings all too true as a story of what drives men to murder. In this case, it's a woman, but it's not really a story of the cursed sex; the woman in question, as so often in Simenon, is empowered and goal-oriented, and fairly straightforward; it's the men who are weak and affected, and unable to deal frankly and openly with their women.

There's also an interesting scene where Maigret braces a junk dealer in the Jewish quarter of Paris (115-119), a scene which displays many stereotypes, and comes uncomfortably close to anti-Semitism (one of Simenon's vulnerable points as a writer and human being). But then, interestingly enough, it's revealed that a Jewish moneylender is a murder victim. (In fact both murdered men in the novel are Jews.) Maigret spends the rest of the novel implacably bringing their Gentile killers to justice. Again and again, just when you begin to think the worst of him, Simenon surprises you.

Simenon, Georges. La guinguette à deux sous. 1931. Paris: Presses Pocket, 1977.