I almost never participate in reading challenges, but I'm always more than happy to join in Simon and Kaggsy's Year Clubs. I'm not sure why they appeal to me so much, but I do love a vintage read and the clubs provide a focus for exploring unknown territory. With this one we are moving closer to the present day - many people reading this will actually have been born by then! It's also the so-called Swinging Sixties, the decade of turning on, tuning in, dropping out - though neither of the books I chose to read seem to reflect any of this.
Simenon published a rather staggering total of seventy-six novels and twenty-eight short stories featuring his memorable pipe-smoking detective, starting in 1931 and ending in 1972. This one was published in France as Maigret à Vichy in 1968 and translated into English for the first, and apparently the last, time in 1969. As Penguin is setting out to publish new translations of all the novels, let's hope this one appears soon. Meanwhile I had to make do with a 1971 reprint of the first translation.
I haven't read anywhere near the whole series, but it's my impression that Maigret doesn't really age much, despite the forty years of his literary lifespan. It's true that a novel published in 1945 is called Maigret in Retirement, but he appears to keep going anyway in the numerous subsequent books. Here, we learn that he's fifty-three, and we find him in need of a bit of rest and recuperation - he's been overworking, suffers from indigestion, sleeps badly, and is generally a bit under the weather. His doctor examines him and considers he's not in too bad shape, but advises him to visit the celebrated spa town of Vichy. Just over four hours south of Paris, the town has had a rather tarnished reputation, having been the headquarters of the collaborationist Nazi government during WW2. By the late 1960s, however, all this was in the past, and the town had become a hugely popular resort, with thirteen cinemas, eight dance halls and three theatres. Everyone, from crowned heads to the wealthy bourgeoisie, flocked there in order to 'take the waters' - the local springs have been known for their apparently curative powers since Roman times.
On arrival, accompanied of course by Madame Maigret, the detective is prescribed his daily routine. In the morning:
I want you to have three half-pints of water at half-hourly intervals, and it should be drunk as hot as you can take it. I want you to repeat the process in the afternoon at about five, at the Chomel spring. Don't worry if yo feel a bit languid the first day. It's a purely temporary effect of the treatment...
The Maigrets are staying in a comfortable hotel , and soon find themselves falling into a pleasant, relaxing routine, including a great deal of walking - 'They had never walked so much in their entire lives'. Maigret takes great pleasure in watching the people around them - he's never bored because he plays at detection, classifying people, wondering what they do for a living, and diagnosing their illnesses by observing what they eat. They are particularly intrigued by a woman they call the lady in lilac. She always attends the same evening concerts as they do, drinks a small amount of the waters in the morning, and aways has an air of aloof dignity. But towards the end of the first week, they make a surprising discovery: the lady in lilac has been murdered, strangled in the house she owned just a couple of streets away from their hotel.
When the police arrive, they are headed by Lecoeur, the Divisional Superintendent from nearby Clermont-Ferrand, who turns out to be an old acquaintance of Maigret's. Although Maigret can't act in any official capacity, naturally the local police are ready to turn to him and benefit from his thoughts and advice on the murder of the woman, whose name turns out to be Hélène Lange. He learns of her solitary life, her estrangement from her more flighty younger sister, her previous residences in Paris and in Nice. He follows his usual routine of taking the waters twice a day and going for walks, but all the time he is musing on this mysterious woman, and trying to work what it could have been in her past that finally caught up with her. He has long discussions with Lecoeur, both of them puffing away at their pipes. Eventually, Hélène Lange's killer takes on a definite shape in Maigret's mind:
He was somewhere in this town, possibly on one of the promenades where the Maigrets so often walked. He was going through more or less the same motions as themselves, seeing the same sights, the sailing boats, the pedal boats, the yellow chairs in the park, and the constant ebb and flow of the crowds in the parks and gardens.
It's only a matter of time till he homes in on the right person, and hears what is essentially a sad story of lies and self-deception. The case is over, and so is Maigret's cure. His health has improved, but he's left feeling regrets about the ruined life of the person who was driven to commit this crime.
All this observing, pipe-smoking, and musing are pretty much standard in Maigret's methodology - you don't go to one of these novels for fantastic furious action. He works things out eventually in his own head. But I was particularly charmed here by the snapshot of life in Vichy at the height of its popularity, the leisurely mornings lingering over breakfast coffee, croissants, and a newspaper, the strolls through town, the cultural activities, and of course the prescribed taking of the waters. Let's hope a new edition of this is going to appear before too long.