In a rainy Concarneau, a fishing town in French Brittany, one attempt at murder follows the other. The murderer(s) seem to target the town’s notable gentlemen, who all have something to hide. A mysterious yellow dog, a distraught woman and a rough looking brute all add to the ambience of doubt and muddy depression. There really could be nothing better than rural France of the 1930s, at the footstep of chaos, to set a story of forgotten morals and grey borders. Le Chien Jaune is one of the very first in the Maigret series, written in just 4 days in 1931 by Georges Simenon and it continues to be rated as one of the writer’s best.
Inspector Maigret, is quite different from the Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle stories, given that, Maigret is never about detection but about plumbing the depths of the human soul. The criminals and the victims in Maigret are easily confused, as characters wade through a moral quagmire that Maigret more or less only witnesses with his iconic pipe firmly fixed to his lips. In fact Maigret is about the non-method. He is often placid. But deep within one can perceive his compassion for the victim and for the criminal, whom fate had pushed down the tunnel of vice. Once, that is, when one get through the half closed eyes, the surly silence and the general air of somnolence.
Simenon is a master at conjuring the ambience of a place. With deft strokes, he fills our nostrils with the odor of tobacco and beer and sad dishes full of fat that fills the bar which is the scene of the crime. We view from a distance, the miserable population of this town on the Atlantic coast and its notables, whose interior ugliness is immediately apparent. Everyone smiles at each other, although the detest the very sight of the neighbor. And amidst all this Inspector Maigret ambles, bemused a bit by humanity’s pettiness.
Although faults, cowardice, smallness are served up in trumps, the same characters show shards of courage and dignity that suddenly make you realize that they are neither heroic nor villainous. They just exist, simply, as one does in life. The Yellow Dog, who sparks horror, fear and loathing serves as a symbol for what plagued Europe of the time. Superstition converts a pitiful beast into the very embodiment of evil and it takes very little effort to convince everyone that the stranger is the reason for all their misery. What you thought was a three hour read, pulpy police procedural, has suddenly taken new meaning.
And that is the true magic of Simenon. Often, Simenon’s prolific writing, could make one think that he was just a pulp writer with little depth. But every great Maigret book (and there are many) remind you that the sensitive intelligence of Inspector Maigret reflects perfectly the ambition of the writer.
This early masterpiece from Simenon is a perfect place to start your journey into the distinct universe of Inspector Maigret.
Le Chien Jaune is available widely in translation as “The Yellow Dog”. Needless to say it is best enjoyed in its original French. In case you would like to start reading French literature in French, you can always enroll yourself for an online French Course at Babel School of Languages 🙂 Just click on the contact us tab!