–Post by Molly
On Tuesday, October 21, at 2pm, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club will discuss one of Georges Simenon’s classic Maigret mysteries, The Carter of ‘La Providence’. The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets the third Tuesday of each month at 2 pm on BookPeople’s third floor.
Last month, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club discussed Tana French’s In The Woods, her much acclaimed debut novel. For October, we have chosen a book of no less quality but of slightly less heft – Georges Simenon‘s jewel of a novel, The Carter of ‘La Providence’. The novel follows Inspector Maigret, Simenon’s main recurring detective, as he enters into the close-knit community of bargemen, boaters, and lock-keepers to solve the murder of a wealthy woman, found strangled in a barn.
To solve the crime, Maigret must bicycle to and fro on the canal interviewing all the flotsam and jetsam of humanity floating down the canal. Through his investigation, we get a close-up of the world of French barge travel in the 1930s, as well as the lives of peasants in the small towns that the barges must pass through. As the inspector’s respect for the small world he has invaded grows, and his dislike of the murder victim increases, Maigret gets closer and closer to an answer he will almost certainly find to be unpleasant.
The world of the canal, and the small feeder communities that support the travelers along it, provide a fascinating glimpse of French society in miniature. Maigret must conduct investigative interviews at all levels of this society in order to solve the crime, from yachts filled with faded mistresses and international playboys to barges carrying cargo and pulled by horses. The setting of The Carter of ‘La Providence’ – in the world of boats, canals, and cozy cabins – draws inspiration from Simenon’s own life as an avid boater, and this novel is one of several that he wrote on board his own boat, the Ostrogoth. The language of The Carter of ‘La Providence’, like in any Simenon work, is a masterpiece of minimalism, and David Coward has done an excellent job of translating Simenon’s deep thoughts hidden in short sentences. Simenon describes each little world with only essential details but in a way that draws the reader entirely into the scene.
Georges Simenon lived a full and busy life, writing over 75 novels with the character of Inspector Maigret, as well as numerous short stories and other stand alone novels. Many credit Simenon with creating the prototypical French roman noir, a novel so dark it can be shelved in a mystery section without even a murder. New York Review of Books has re-released many of Simenon’s stand-alones, including Dirty Snow, a stunning and amoral journey into the heart of a black marketeer in Nazi-occupied Paris. These twisted journeys into the human psyche first piqued my interest in Georges Simenon, but it was Maigret’s love of humanity and earthy humor that sealed the deal in my becoming a Simenon fan for life. Penguin Classics has reissued many Maigret novels over the past year and a half in new translations, and you can find many of these stories on our shelves today.
Simenon does not go for shock value. In his novels, ordinary people commit ordinary crimes and an ordinary and rather worn-down detective solves them. Simenon’s characters are crass, humorous, occasionally shocking, and constantly eating. Through his Inspector Maigret novels, Simenon manages to convey what to me is a singular human truth, and one that is often lost in more hard-boiled novels – nothing is justifiable, everything is understandable, and almost anything is forgivable.
Copies of The Carter of La Providence are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Come to the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club Tuesday, October 21, to discuss this eminently satisfying novel.