Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Georges Simenon’s Inspector Jules Maigret has been a favourite of many crime fiction fans for decades. Maigret’s character, the well-drawn French setting and the plots have endeared the Maigret stories to readers all over the world. Not to include some of Simenon’s work in this feature would leave a gaping hole in it, so today, let’s take a closer look at Simenon’s Maigret and the Yellow Dog.
The story begins in the French seaside village of Concarneau, where prominent wine dealer Monsieur Mostaguen leaves the Admiral Hotel one night a bit the worse for wear with drink. He tries to light a cigar, but it’s a very windy night so he’s not able to do so. He makes his way to a nearby doorway where there’s a bit of shelter and tries again. Suddenly he falls over, badly wounded. Someone lurking in the house has shot him. Inspector Maigret is called in and he and his assistant Leroy soon begin to investigate. They take up temporary quarters at the Admiral, where they soon get to know the group of friends with whom Mostaguen spent a great deal of time: Dr. Michoux, newspaper editor Jean Servières, and Monsieur le Pommerat. On the very night they meet Maigret, though, the group is nearly poisoned; someone has tampered with a bottle of wine the group had ordered.
Rumours soon begin to spread that someone is targeting the town’s most prominent citizens, and hysteria soon begins to build. Then, some clues begin to emerge that the culprit is Léon LeGlérec, a big, burly stranger who’s been seen in the area. The mayor is particularly afraid that his town will get a bad reputation, especially when journalists from all over get word of the strange events in Concarneau. Then there’s another death. Now, Maigret and Leroy have to go up against not only a killer, but also constant pressure from the mayor and other town leaders to solve the case. There’s also the matter of the public furor; day by day, the town is getting more and more on edge as everyone begins to fear that there’s a madman at work in the area.
Each in a different way, Maigret and Leroy work to find out who is responsible for the crimes, and what the motive is. Leroy works with the physical evidence and laboratory results. That information proves to be very helpful in establishing how the crimes occurred. Maigret gets to know the group at the Admiral Hotel and learns much about their histories and backgrounds. He also befriends Emma, a waitress at the hotel who knows far more than she is saying. And then there’s the large yellow dog that seems to spend a lot of time at the hotel and that Maigret comes to believe is involved in the case somehow. Together, Maigret and Leroy use the different kinds of information they get to find out what’s behind the upsetting events in Concarneau. It turns out that the attack on Mostaguen, the other death, and some other strange occurrences all have to do with international smuggling, a love affair and revenge.
Simenon was well-known for his interesting characters, and we see that in this novel. Mostaguen, Michoux, Servières, and le Pommerat all have layers and depths to them which are slowly revealed as the novel moves on. What’s very interesting, too, is that we learn about them mostly through what they say about each other. As Maigret spends time with the group, he gradually gets to know each of the members. Emma, too, turns out to have an interesting past and more than one secret. She’s a likeable character to whom life hasn’t been very kind, but she’s a strong, loyal person. When we find out the truth about this mystery, it’s hard not to have some compassion for Emma. And then there’s the mysterious Léon LeGlérec, an eccentric fisherman who’s recently come to Concarneau and who somehow seems to be involved in this mystery. Most of the people in the town assume he’s the cause of all the trouble and this adds to Maigret’s difficulty as he tries to figure out the truth of the matter. All of these characters are three-dimensional; however, because they’re all hiding things, we don’t get to see all of those dimensions at first. Discovering what these people are really like is part of what keeps the reader engaged.
There is also, of course, Maigret himself. He’s sharp-witted and observant, and not above using ruses to get the criminal to confess. He’s a solid judge of character and of course, he wants the criminal caught. And yet, he’s also compassionate and not overly judgemental. He’s not perfect, either. For instance, he finds the mayor officious and annoying, and isn’t at all at his best when he has to spend time with the man. Maigret’s a likeable character and it’s not hard to see why he’s won the fans he has.
Simenon addresses some larger issues in this novel, but at the same time, he doesn’t preach. For instance, there’s a sobering mob mentality in the town as the residents become more and more frightened. That hysteria nearly leads to tragedy, but we see this more at a personal level than at a larger level. In a way, that adds to the suspense. Simenon also addresses the role of women in the character of Emma. The circumstances of her life haven’t been easy, and as the novel moves on, it’s very clear that with one exception, she’s not really seen as a human with her own ambitions and her own will. By and large she’s learned to live with what life has given her, but we can see that her choices have been very limited by her gender. In fact, for much of the novel, Maigret is the only one who really notices her and guesses that she might have something of value to contribute to the case. Social class plays a role in this novel, too, and Simenon brings up the difference class makes in the way that some of the characters are seen. For example the attack on Mostaguen makes the news because he’s one of the town’s “better citizens.” LeGlérec is assumed to be guilty in part because he is not. Class is not the reason for the attack or for the other events, but it is woven through the story.
Finally, there’s the French seaside village setting. Simenon was well-known for his vivid portrayals of life in France (although he was Belgian himself), and this novel is no exception:
“Beyond the harbor, where boats were tugging at their moorings, Maigret found the mouth of the Saint-Jacques River. It was at the very edge of town, where houses thinned out and shipyards took over. Several half-finished vessels stood on the ways. Old boats lay rotting in the mud.
A stone bridge crossed the river where it emptied into the harbor…”
And it’s on that portrait of a French village and the people who live there that this novel focuses. One could call it a police procedural, since the police investigate and since they learn a lot of information from the evidence they find. It’s not quite a classic police procedural, though, as there is so much emphasis on the village and its inhabitants.
A solid example of Simenon’s eye for setting and characters, Maigret and the Yellow Dog is an interesting mystery with a believable but not obvious solution. But what’s your view? Have you read Maigret and the Yellow Dog? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 29 August/ Tuesday 30 August – Die a Little – Megan Abbott
Monday 5 September/Tuesday 6 September – The Investigation – Stanislaw Lem
Monday 12 September/Tuesday 13 September – Chile Death – Susan Wittig Albert