A Man’s Head, Georges Simenon


Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

Here I am in Paris at last, in a delightful old house of three levels and full of books, on the Rue de la Tombe Issoire; a converted stables maybe, at the rear of an apartment block. “Look for the porte vert”, my daughter wrote, and there it was and in we walked through a cobblestoned tunnel, past the concierge’s door, and out into the courtyard. All exactly as I imagined from half a century of reading Simenon and Maigret.

Yesterday, we – me, ex-Mrs Legend, geology daughter and three grandkids aged 5 – 13 – made our way by #38 bus to the Ile de la Cite – the Palais de Justice, the Prefecture de Police, Notre Dame – on a lovely early spring day, no leaves on the trees yet, but daffodils and tulips flowering in all the gardens. Maigret routinely cuts through the Palais on his way to his office in the Prefecture, but the two buildings/complexes are separated by a street, the Blvd du Palais, and slightly offset, so I’m none the wiser about how that works.

The Penguin edition of A Man’s Head I have with me (earlier than the one pictured) I found quite by accident in a second hand shop in Perth a few days ago. It has an excellent introduction by Patrick Marnham – well, excellent except that it reveals who dunnit – which sets out Simenon’s history as a writer.

Georges Simenon (1903-1989) was a stupendously prolific author, writing up to 40 titles per year. When he wrote La Tete d’un Homme in 1930, first published in English in 1939, as A Battle of Nerves, he was already a successful writer of pulp fiction under various pseudonyms, and had four other Maigret novels completed. They were all launched at a wild party in Montparnasse (just up the road from here!) in February 1931. By the end of the year there were 11 Maigret titles in print, and by 1939 and the outbreak of war, nineteen.

Simenon famously wrote two streams of novels, Maigrets and ‘Simenons’, psychological thrillers. Although they are not so dissimilar in their approach to crime, the Simenons are probably more sexual. By the time he retired in 1972 Simenon had written 193 novels under his own name.

In this early novel, Maigret is already 45, a large man (though under 6′ as it turns out), broad shouldered, imposing, wrapped in his heavy overcoat, and an Inspector in the Police Judiciaire. He and Madame Maigret, waiting patiently at home in their small apartment on the Blvd Richard-Lenoir, are and remain childless. In fact, Mme Maigret, who is a significant presence in later novels, barely rates a mention in this.

Maigret solves his murders by accumulating evidence, not just the forensic evidence, and the curious noises in the dark, of Sherlock Holmes, but the evidence of Maigret’s senses, of his feeling for the characters involved as he absorbs himself in their milieu. Marnham writes that “When the forensic expert tells Maigret that the writer of the anonymous note to a newspaper is an intellectual who speaks several languages [and identifies which bar in Montparnasse the note has come from by the colour of the ink], we can take it that the author is mocking the great tradition of ‘Elementary my dear Watson’.” Maigret is a new type of detective, arriving at the identity of the perpetrator by his intuition into the characters of the victim(s) and the suspects.

A Man’s Head begins with a prisoner on death row awaiting his turn to die, having already heard the man in the next cell being led away – Markham points out that, shockingly, in 1930 “execution was still carried out on the street, in central Paris, outside the prison walls”. The man, Heurtin, sentenced to death for the murders of a wealthy old lady and her servant/companion is allowed to escape and is followed by Maigret’s men as he makes his way back along the Seine to his parents’ inn where, rejected by his father, he hangs himself in the stables. Along the way he is observed by Maigret hanging around outside a Montparnasse cafe attempting unsuccessfully to make contact with a poor young man, a student maybe, ekeing out a coffee and a pot of yogurt over a whole day sitting at the bar. In this cafe Maigret is subsequently approached by the young man, Radek, who wishes to discuss murders with him, and by a flash young man, Kirby, who is the nephew and heir of the murdered old woman, and from there he goes on to uncover the real murderer.

But this brief account does no justice to the long hours Maigret spends waiting, observing and thinking, nor to Simenon’s loving attention to detail, in the descriptions of Paris’ underbelly of prostitutes and petty criminals, and of life along the Seine, the barges, the cafes and inns, out of Paris and into the country.

And Maigret spent an hour after his own heart, snugly ensconced in a corner of the cab, whose windows were splashed with rain and misty from the warmth inside. He smoked incessantly, warmly wrapped in the enormous overcoat that had become a byword on the Quai des Orfevres.

The suburbs of Paris glided by, then the October country. Sometimes a drab band of river came into view between the gables of houses and the bare trees.

Maigret is of course at odds with the examining magistrate who, in the French system, controls the case, and his neck is on the line – though not so literally as Heurtin’s – in the gamble he takes in facilitating the escape of a convicted murderer. There are probably too many coincidences, particularly in Maigret being present when Heurtin attempts to contact Radek, and we have less involvement with Maigret as a person than we do in later novels. But nevertheless, all the elements are there which almost instantaneously made Maigret and Simenon justifiably famous.

The Prefecture de Police (looking down towards Notre Dame)

Georges Simenon, A Man’s Head, first pub. 1931. This ed. translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury, Penguin Classics, 2003.

*The absence of French accents is not me being bolshie! I typed this direct into WordPress (I normally type at least my first draft in Word) and so had no access to special characters – though I guess there must be provision for French bloggers somewhere. Anyway, sorry. I’ll fix it when I get home.

The driver who brought us in from Charles de Gaulle Airport said that the French were unhappy with the British over WW II and had consequently been resistant to speaking English. But I must say that the mostly french-speaking waiters and barmen we have dealt with, far from being ‘notoriously surly’, have been uniformly cheerful and helpful. Tomorrow I make my way to Avignon, where the others are staying on, then on to Barcelona. All I have to do is negotiate my Eurail pass into a ticket into Spain, which is so far proving difficult.