As I'm sure you know, Penguin has set itself the delightful task of republishing every one of Simenon's seventy-five Maigret novels. This one, published earlier this month, is number 57. It first came out in 1961, thirty years after the series began.
I was struck by the biographical note which appears at the beginning of the book. This is Simenon writing about himself:
My motto, to the extent I have one, has been noted often enough, and I've always conformed to it. It's the one I've given to old Maigret, who resembles me in some points...'understand and judge not'.
I've probably read this before, but it struck me forcibly as being particularly applicable to this delightful novel. Maigret is woken in the early hours of the morning by a phone call from a colleague, Fumel. A body has been discovered in the Bois de Boulogne and Fumel has called because 'I don't know why, but I get the feeling there's something strange about it'. Maigret drags himself unwillingly from his warm bed, urged by Mme Maigret to wrap up warm, and refuses her offer to make him something to eat. He's feeling a little sulky, 'and yet, deep down, these were the time he liked, perhaps those he would miss most when he retired'.
He arrives in the freezing Bois to find a group of policemen standing around the body of a well-dressed, middle-aged man who, they conclude, must have been killed elsewhere and dumped here for some reason. Back at the police station Maigret reveals that he knows the man's identity. His name is Honoré Cuendet, originally from Switzerland. He's known Cuendet for many years: 'A quiet man, probably the quietest burglar ever'. Maigret volunteers to visit his old mother, whose address he already knows. The first thing she asks Maigret is whether he's arrested her son again. Her reaction to news of his death is surprisingly calm at first, though later she begins to weep over her boy, who never harmed anyone, 'the quietest, gentlest man in the world'.
Later, Maigret muses on the many years of his long acquaintance with Cuendet and on the man's history. Trained as a locksmith, he had turned to theft while still a teenager, storing things in his room that he had no real use for, just for the fun of having taken them. After five years in the Foreign Legion he had moved to Paris and his career as a burglar began. His technique was an unusual one. He would single out a great house, occupied by wealthy people, and rent a room opposite for weeks at a time while he observed the comings and goings of the household. Eventually it was time to move. Unlike other burglars, he only broke into houses where the people were asleep in their beds - he clearly enjoyed his skill in moving round oblivious peoples' bedrooms. His burglaries were few and far between, but Maigret knows there must be a stack of money and treasure stored away somewhere - Mme Cuendet had said her son always promised he would look after her after his death, though she apparently doesn't have anything stored in her own apartment. After a long time of thinking and asking around, Maigret finds out where Cuendet has been staying, and why - his room looked out at the facade of a mansion owned by a stupendously rich Englishman, obviously the burglar's latest target. He also discovers someone who can give him a deeper insight into the man's character and a hint as to where the money may be stored.
Maigtet has to do all this surreptitiously, as this is not actually his case. And in fact the case is never completely solved, though Maigret is certain as to who was responsible. His investigations have been almost entirely for his own satisfaction. He imagines himself in court, producing his small amounts of real evidence and trying to convince the judge of the truth of the matter. It's not really important, though, as he's sure that Cuendet has left his mother and his girlfriend in a secure financial situation.
The note I quoted at the beginning, 'understand and judge not', absolutely sums up Maigret's position in this novel. He and Cuendet were on opposite sides , and yet he liked the man and rather admired his quiet, skilful methodology. But this is something he had to keep to himself. As we learn early on in the novel:
He rarely spoke about his job, and even more rarely expressed an opinion about men and their institutions. He distrusted their ideas, as they were always too rigid to reflect reality, which, as he knew from experience, was very fluid.
Wonderful stuff, and well worth reading.