My copy of Simenon’s Maigret at the Crossroads looks almost as old as the novella itself (1931). Falling apart, shedding age-browned bits of paper on my clothes, blankets, and desk, it was given to me by my loving companion of twenty years. Before he left me a widow, he bought the paperback from a shabby dealer operating out of a van on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, an appropriate venue since Georges Simenon’s Chief-Inspector Maigret lives his life in literature on the streets of Paris. . . .
But unlike many of the Maigret stories that unfold on the streets, At the Crossroads takes place in a country intersection described as a triangle, a confusing geometry. . . .
I use these ellipses quite consciously in imitation of Simenon’s stylistic device. I’m tempted to say he chose the device to show passage of time and the unimportance of details, but the writing is so organic, without apparent premeditation, that the ellipses seem to belong to Maigret himself as he floats from one pertinent, inconclusive insight to another. . .
But as I was saying, spatially handicapped as I am, I didn’t thoroughly understand the geography of the intersection, nor did I care. I knew it was near a provincial town on a much-traveled two-lane highway (“. . .the shining, even ribbon of the road embanked like a river by tall trees”), and that during the few hours it takes to read a Simenon mystery, I would become familiar with everything I needed to know: one petrol station, one ancient villa, and one run-down country home known as the house of the Three Widows. As Simenon is said to have remarked when someone pointed out a flaw in his plot (Where was the diamond merchant murdered? And by the way, how did the body get transferred from one motor car to another?), the details don’t really matter. Ellipses serve as a guide: don’t bother me. Keep reading.
What matters is light and weather. (“Dawn had not yet broken. There was still the same grey mist floating about at ground-level but not shedding any light. The baker’s motor went by along the road, an old Ford whose front-wheels wobbled on the asphalt.”)
What matters are the fields and busy highway leading to Paris along which trucks transport early vegetables, “especially watercress” (and, it turns out, much more) to city markets. (“A light appeared in an isolated farm in the midst of the fields. The peasants were getting up. A lantern moved round a wall and disappeared, and then it was the turn of the cow-shed windows to light up. ‘Five o’clock. . . .They’re starting to milk the cows. . . .’”) Pacing the shoulder of the highway at 2:00 a.m., Maigret is watching, waiting, listening for what his intuition tells him. Trucks and an occasional motor car stop at the station behind him for petrol and repairs where the proprietor, Monsieur Oscar, hovers over his little fiefdom, focusing alert eyes on the traffic, on the house of the Three Widows across the roadway, and on the shabby villa where the owner and his wife are playing a key role in the mystery.
Maigret may pace the highway at 2:00 a.m., but his ability to relax at key moments is well-known . . . . (“When the meal was over, Maigret dragged his chair into the yard, placed it next to a wall, in the midst of the hens and ducks, and dozed in the sunshine for half an hour.”)
Everywhere are painterly settings. “But [Maigret] could not see anything on account of the motor’s headlamps, which, flooding part of the scene with glaring light, made the darkness everywhere else complete.” And again: “The road beneath him was like a trail of ink reflecting gleams of moonlight whenever a motor-car passed. The headlamps could be seen far away, perhaps at a distance of five or six miles. Then all of a sudden there was a sort of cyclone, a rush of air, a roaring noise, and a little red light disappearing into the distance.”
One day the film director, Jean Renoir, son of the French impressionist painter, sought out Simenon who was writing on the dock beside his pleasure craft, the Ostrogoth, former life boat to a yacht. With his wife, son, girlfriend, and dog (yes, wife, son, girlfriend, and dog. . . .) he was traveling the rivers and canals of France. Renoir, jumping out of his “motor-car,” announced that he was determined to make a film of Maigret at the Crossroads.
It is no wonder the cinematic book appealed to him. But the film was not a success. Simenon later said crucial scenes were not shot because Renoir was drunk; Renoir said two reels of film were lost. . . .
The story’s two main characters are a Danish brother and sister whose exotic personalities populate Simenon’s elliptical time and space. As thick as the chiaroscuro shadows of their living room, as provocative as the upstairs bedroom (“The Venetian shutters were closed. But the horizontal slats were letting in broad bands of sunlight. The result was that the whole room was a jigsaw puzzle of light and shade. The walls, the objects, Else’s face itself were so to speak cut up into luminous slices”. . . .), the relationship between Carl and Else Andersen disguises itself. Only at the ending does Simenon reveal the inner dynamics between the two.
There are inner dynamics between Else Andersen and Maigret, too. Like Simenon, whose sexual hunger was legendary, Maigret feels the undertow of her eroticism. But he is not pulled under. His instincts serve him as well in sexual matters as in police work. After all, Mme. Maigret is at home waiting for him, ready to cook a meal, care for his clothes, and, presumably, love him as warmly in the bedroom as she does in the kitchen. Maigret remains whole; perhaps more whole than the author himself. Might this not be reason enough for Simenon to write book after book about the Chief-Inspector? . . .
Throughout the story, Maigret is uneasy. His restless mind struggles with the underlying puzzle at the crossroads, even while he takes note of the weather, light, highway, motor cars. . . . From the first page, the strange Carl Andersen with the monocle, this Dane whose glass eye stares with “unpleasant fixity” and whose live, “sad pupil [turns] slowly aside,” elicits grudging respect from the Chief-Inspector. As the book progresses, the “sister” increasingly interests him with her langorous body and mendacious personality.
Building suspense, Simenon can be endearingly transparent: “You expect something important to happen tonight, don’t you?” “Hmmm. . . .”
With the suspects finally lined up against the Andersens’ living room wall like noisy school children, accusing each other, jabbing each other in the ribs, Maigret is still unsure of who, why, when. . . . (And how, we might wonder, did the Paris Prefecture manage to so promptly transport all of these habitual criminals from their various locations to the house of the Three Widows? But, of course, it doesn’t matter. . . .)
The ending produces gunshot after gunshot. Maigret, physically strong, not as old as in later books, gets involved in a fist fight on the floor of a dry, shallow well.
Though I don’t care very much about gunshots and fistfights in shallow wells, as I turn the brittle pages of my paperback, dripping bits of cover and binding on the bedclothes, I never want to leave the French countryside, the Danish brother, his sister—but if she’s not his sister, who exactly is she? And what are they really doing in the house of the Three Widows here at an ordinary French crossroads so far from Denmark. . . .