Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife, by Georges Simenon: Drink and Think

In this 1953 outing, Chief Inspector Maigret is approached by the wife of a local safebreaker who has vanished after stumbling across a dead woman during a job at the home of a dentist, Guillaume Serre. Maigret’s investigations lead to Serre’s house, where the dentist and his mother deny knowledge of either a burglary or a body- and both insist Serre’s wife, not seen in several days, has gone on holiday. Are they hiding something? Can Maigret prove it?

The great thing about the Maigret novels is the stillness. Unlike his more excitable British or American counterparts, Simenon gives us a police procedural shot through with a dose of existentialism. Sad Freddie, the burglar, isn’t even in the story. His plight is the mirror the story puts up to allow Maigret to examine the lives and habits of the family (and himself): Guillaume Serre drinks in secret: not heavily, but away from his disapproving mother; Madame Serre dislikes her daughter-in-law yet sanctioned the marriage so her middle-aged son isn’t alone after she’s gone, and the maid, Eugenie, who detests her employers but won’t leave them.

If it sounds a bit up its own derriere, think again. Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife is an observant, intelligent mystery that builds steadily to a taut finale as Maigret and Serre, both men of stature (in build and intellect), square off and Maigret attempts, Columbo-like, to break his opponent’s alibi armed with a conspicuous lack of brick dust in the dentist’s car and a window pane that may have been repaired after a recent storm, but could easily be the one Sad Freddie removed to gain access to the house. Fans of series like Line of Duty will appreciate the interview sequences as Maigret attempts to break down not just Serre, but also his mother, with the aid of Lofty, the burglar’s wife of the title, as the story draws to its quiet but powerful conclusion.

That this all takes place in the space of 140 pages is testament to Georges Simenon’s ability to sketch out just enough detail of his characters to make them work. Even the absent Sad Freddie, a man who robs the very safes he used to build but can’t pick the ones with the wealth in, is beautifully observed. Paris in a heatwave is conveyed by flashes of colour from shirts normally covered by suit jackets and a wasp trying to fly out of Maigret’s office window.

Then there’s the drinking. The amount of beer and aperitifs Maigret and his men consume during the investigation is heroic- and that’s while they’re in the office. Maigret has a couple of glasses of wine on his way to work. Do Maigret fans meet up to try and drink along with their hero at special ‘readings’?

There’s a thought…