29 December 2011 0 Comments

Crime Fiction’s Best First Paragraphs: 3

Georges Simenon wrote “L’Affaire Saint Fiacre” (“Maigret Goes Home”) in 1932. It’s one of the first of the 103 novels involved Inspector Jules Maigret. You can tell from books like this that the writer was a bit of a bastard. And we ought to be grateful for that.

The opening of “Saint Fiacre” (I’m going to look at the opening, rather than the opening paragraph, because the paragraphs are short, staccato) is laden with the strangeness of waking up in an unaccustomed place, and most of all the dismal return to a place whence one has fled. Here it is:

A timid scratching at the door; the sound of an object being put on the floor; a furtive voice:

“It’s half past five. The first bell for Mass has just been rung…”

Maigret raised himself on his elbows, making the mattress creak, and while he was looking in astonishment at the skylight cut in the sloping roof, the voice went on:

“Are you taking communion?”

All this is a re-creation of the small village atmosphere Maigret believed he had left behind him when he went to Paris as a young man to become a police officer. It’s a very meaningful atmosphere for me. For a couple of decades now, I’ve lived around the world as a journalist and writer. It’s been 22 years since I quit the backwater where I grew up. If I’d been a happy kid, I’d probably never have left. So whenever I go back for a visit, I become quiet, silenced by a bitter nostalgia and regret. Maybe that’s why I love this somber, atmospheric early episode featuring “le Commissaire” going back to his childhood village.

Maigret appeared in so many movies and television adaptations–for Saint-Fiacre alone there are a 1959 French-language movie with Jean Gabin and two British TV versions–that it’s easy to think of him with the familiarity we often ascribe to endlessly reproduced old-timers like Miss Marple. But Simenon had a lot more in common with his great U.S. crime-writing contemporaries. In Saint-Fiacre, he makes the lugubrious Raymond Chandler look like a breezy teenager skipping down a sunny small-town street in her bobby socks. Imagine that.

Simenon’s first editor wrote to him: “Your books aren’t real police novels. They aren’t scientific. They don’t play by the rules. There’s no love story in them. There’re no sympathetic characters. You won’t have a thousand readers.” Well, 550 million copies printed shows what that guy knew about potential sales. But he was right about the way the Belgian writer’s books worked. No real good guys and nothing–certainly not love–untainted by the grasping desire to escape a society of dying traditions and internal immigration.

The Saint-Fiacre Affair begins, then, with Maigret waking up in the inn of the village of Saint-Fiacre. At first he doesn’t recognize where he is. As it dawns upon him, he’s flooded with a heavy sense of darkness. He has returned to the village where he grew up to investigate a crime which is about to happen. (His office in the Paris police headquarters received a note saying that “A crime will be committed at the Saint-Fiacre Church during the first mass of the days of the dead.”)

As he strolls through the village, people glance at him curiously. They seem to recognize him, but can’t place the face of the son of the former steward at the local château, a face that left their community 35 years previously to pursue a career in the capital. All other traces of Maigret’s family are gone from the village and he wanders it sensing somehow that its very stones are unwelcoming.

When characters eventually recognize him or when he owns up to being from Saint-Fiacre, they seem to wonder what the hell could’ve brought him back. It’s clear they don’t trust him. There’s no hale slap on the back or curiosity about what he’s been doing all these years. Simenon captures the isolation and suspicion of the French peasant for the big city perfectly. What these people are signaling to Maigret–and what he instinctively realizes–is that he may have been born in Saint-Fiacre, but the moment he left he ceased to belong to it. They owe him nothing. He’s on his own.

If you’ve ever been back to a place where you weren’t happy as a kid, a place from which you wanted to escape, you’ll feel as though you’re reading your diary, not a detective novel.

At the first mass, the Countess of Saint-Fiacre dies of a heart attack. With his crime delivered as promised, Maigret uncovers a clue at the scene and tracks the killer. But it’s really his own despondent sense of alienation that’s at the heart of this novel, and it’s there right from the first paragraph.

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