24
Sep 07

Character Witnesses

FT + The Brown Wedge5 comments • 688 views

Agatha Christie’s “Evil Under The Sun” and Georges Simenon’s “Maigret And The Old Lady” have a few things in common: seasides, murder, and a lady whose intelligence and good company charms the detective even though she might be a bad ‘un. I read the former on holiday in France and the latter the week after I got back. This was the right order. Christie’s seaside resort – an island off the Devon coast – is a flimsy concoction, nicely set up for a whodunnit but with no atmosphere, and “Evil Under The Sun” is an easy read even for smooth-rolling Agatha – just right for polishing off on an afternoon in the garden. Simenon’s setting is much better-drawn, a French fishing town as the tourist season winds down, which provokes plenty of brooding in Maigret, who is in the bad position of having Proustian flashbacks to holidays he took specifically to evoke images of other holidays he DIDN’T take as a child. It’s no wonder he spends most of the book necking Calvados.

This is the first Maigret novel I’ve read, and though in most ways it’s a better book than the Christie it’s also slightly dislikeable. Maigret himself I warmed to – he was a bit like Doctor Who, diffident and grumpy but a shrewd reader of character and capable of immense moral force. But the cloud of gloom over the novel becomes wearing, and I got the feeling Simenon was impatient with his own plot, and saw it as a vehicle for his character work and introspective description. These are initially impressive, but the introspection never resolves into anything and the character work settles into a formula: a person appears, Maigret assesses them, their actions show M. is right, onto the next one. The book has a sophisticated gloss on it which hides an essential thin-ness. Admittedly it’s a short book and there’s not a lot of plot to go around – what there is is satisfying, realistic, and quite easy for the reader to work out: there’s really only one credible suspect in the case, though Simenon sensibly never highlights this.

I enjoyed reading “Evil Under The Sun” more, though it’s a surprisingly sloppy book, especially as Christie’s taken such pains building a setting designed for sleuthing – nobody gets in, nobody gets out, but even so the killer clue turns out to be a previous crime revealed only 20 pages or so before the end, quite out of the blue. As a puzzle this makes it a bit of a failure, but it’s a failure with enough gusto to carry it and a few good comic turns.

A final point of comparison: both books have a serial adultress as a central figure, approached in very different ways. Simenon does his best to make the woman mysterious, and layers on the reverse psychology. She sleeps around because she likes men. Noes! She sleeps around because she hates men AAAH do you see. (Maigret turns her down though, he has a case to solve). In a less showy (and less racy) fashion Christie also explores the character’s psychology, and it’s not really any more convincing but it is an important hinge for the reveal: in Agatha, details of character tend also to be details of plot. Why do I find her approach more enjoyable? If I’m being kind to myself I might say that I prefer characterisation to be done thoroughly; if I’m being unkind I might infer that I basically don’t care about character at all.

(This is the second in a not-quite series blogging my reading 10 mystery novels by 10 different authors. The first post was about John Dickson Carr. Next – probably – is Marjory Allingham)

Comments

  1. 1
    Tom on 24 Sep 2007 #

    http://freakytrigger.co.uk/ft/wedge/2004/07/i-like-detective-fiction/ – by astonishing coincidence Pete had already blogged about the same Simenon book – the only two mentions of Maigret on FT (so far)

  2. 2
    Alix on 25 Sep 2007 #

    I’ve only read one Maigret (Maigret and the Burglar), after my initial big rush of Agatha consumption, so I was probably comparing the two. It was one of those books which felt like a struggle to get through (unlike an Agatha) – when reading it I didn’t really enjoy it, and that it was too slow, oppressive and serious, and generally putdownable. However, the aftertaste (er) of the characterisation and setting was nice and stayed with me, making me reflect more favourably on the book afterwards than when actually reading it. I suspect they’re growers, and you need to get to persevere to ‘get’ them, unlike Agathas which all seem equally accessible and sadly, also fairly forgettable once you’ve finished them. That said, I would probably still choose Christie over Simenon, but then I am a cheap tart.

  3. 3
    Pete on 25 Sep 2007 #

    And I bet the Burglar did it as well!

  4. 4
    Tom on 25 Sep 2007 #

    Looking at Wikipedia there seem to be quite a few instances where the English title is not a strict translation of the French, indeed one might almost say the translators have tried to make another grim old Maigret book seem more exciting, unless my French has failed me grievously and au “Picratt’s” does indeed mean And The Strangled Stripper.

  5. 5
    Alix on 25 Sep 2007 #

    No, the burglar was the victim. He had done some bad bastard stuff though, to prompt his murderizin’.

    I am expecting someone to come and tell me I have misremembered the plot, as I suspect I have.

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