Who doesn't love Maigret? How could anyone not? I've only read a handful of his vast output, and I've not encountered a dud yet. I rescued this one from a terrible fate the other day - it was headed for the tip. And for a slim little volume, it gave me the most enormous pleasure on a long and otherwise tedious journey.
It's the first day of spring, and everyone, the police included, is in a holiday mood. The sun is shining and the air feels surprisingly warm. In the police station at the Quai des Orfevres, Maigret notices an unremarkable, slightly unattractive man sitting patiently in the waiting room the police know as Purgatory. He's been there for some time and shows no sign of leaving. Eventually Maigret discovers that he is Gastin, a schoolmaster from the Charente, a seaside region in Western France, who is suspected of having killed an unpleasant old woman, his neighbour. He's come to ask the famous detective for help. There's no evidence that he did the murder, but he and his wife are universally disliked in the village - they are seen as foreigners, having moved from a different area, so they have been seized upon as responsible. Will Maigret come back with him and find the real murderer? Under normal circumstances the detective would say no, but the springlike weather, and memories of holidays by the sea eating mussels and drinking the local white wine, are enough to sway the balance, and soon the two are on the train heading for the village.
Naturally enough things are not the same as in Maigret's happy memories - mussels are out of season, and the wine is rather coarse and strong (and he drinks far too much of it). Even worse, the sea is not visible from the village. Gastin is soon arrested, and Maigret is left staying in a seedy old inn and trying to make sense of the complicated relationships between the inhabitants, several of whom seem to be permanently drunk.
There are no obvious suspects for the crime, which everyone feels was well deserved and long overdue. However a young boy, son of the local butcher, has given a statement saying he saw Gastin coming out of his garden shed just at the time the murder was committed. It was done with a .22 rifle, a weapon owned by most of the young boys in the village, which makes things difficult.
Maigret interviews people, if they are sober enough, and spends a lot of time talking to the boys, mostly aged around 12. He also enjoys watching the old men in the inn, realising they are quite a bit like children themselves, still interacting in the ways they did when they were at school together. Eventually of course he solves the case, and rings Mme Maigret to say he's catching the afternoon train home. He decides they'll go and see a film together as soon as possible.
This is a totally charming book. Yes, a murder was committed but honestly the woman was asking for it, and neither the other inhabitants nor the reader is going to feel too sorry. Nothing in the village is going to change, but I guess that's French villages in the 1950s for you. I live in a French village myself, and everyone seems pretty friendly and well behaved though no doubt there are the usual animosities under the surface. Anyway, this one is being republished by Penguin in June this year, so I suggest you get a copy - it's truly a delight.