Book Review: A Maigret Christmas

by Georges Simenon, David Coward (Translation)

My 84-year-old mother is a great crime fiction buff. When she saw I was reading A Maigret Christmas by Georges Simenon, she commented that it was a great pity “Mr Bean” had been given the part of the French detective in ITV’s recent adaption, because “although he [Rowan Atkinson] is a very good actor, one keeps on expecting him to remove his trousers or do something equally silly in the middle of an important case.”

Mr Bean aside, the TV drama has merely brought renewed interest in Simenon’s shrewd, trilby-hat wearing, pipe-smoking commissioner of the Paris ‘Brigade Criminelle’. In 2013, Penguin Books started releasing new translations of his seventy-six Maigret novels, originally published between 1931 and 1972, and this collection of seasonal stories is the latest in their Classics’ series.

Simenon (1903-1989) was a prolific author, his novels, novellas and autobiographical works numbering almost five hundred. He was Belgian born, the son of an accountant, starting out as a cub reporter for the Gazette de Liège, before moving to Paris in 1922 following the death of his father. However, it was during his time as a young journalist that he came to know the seedier side of his city – his familiarity with local prostitutes, criminals and notorious drinking dens prepared him well for his profession as a writer of detective fiction.

A Maigret Christmas is the title story from this newly translated book of short fiction, in which the burly detective receives an unexpected visit from two ladies on Christmas morning. Maigret and his stoical wife, Louise (referred to throughout as Madame Maigret) are a childless couple in their fifties, endeavouring to be festive, though actually feeling rather melancholy in their soulless apartment. He is thus quietly relieved when his services are required by his neighbours following the appearance of a sinister intruder in their home. An intriguing case ensues.

The gruff but kindly Maigret was apparently based on Simenon’s good friend, Chief Inspector Marcel Guillaume, a man said to be the greatest French detective of his day. Whether “Mr Bean” was quite what he had in mind for his serial protagonist, we shall never know, but his most famous fictional character would appear to be more popular than ever.

Many thanks to Penguin Books (UK) for supplying the ARC of a single story from this collection.

Book Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

by Matthew J. Sullivan

Author Matthew J. Sullivan, a bona fide Denverite, has set his debut novel in the Lower Downtown district of Denver, Colorado, and the City is as much a character in his story as the patrons (fondly known as BookFrogs) of the Bright Ideas Bookstore.

LoDo has evolved from skid row to hip and happening neighbourhood in a relatively short space of time – urban reinvestment producing a sort of cultural renaissance – and protagonist, Lydia Smith, whom I suspect is (like myself) on the autistic spectrum, finds these changes somewhat unsettling. She has worked in the book shop for a number of years and has developed a soft spot for the shabby male misfits and eccentrics whose isolated lives are made endurable only by this sanctuary amongst the shelves.

One BookFrog in particular, the intriguing but emotionally damaged Joey Molina, brings out Lydia’s maternal instincts. However, his horrific suicide leads to a concatenation of unexpected developments involving defaced books, the reappearance of peeps from the past and the gradual disclosure of deeply buried secrets. It also forces her to confront memories of her intensely traumatic childhood – something she has endeavoured to suppress almost as much from herself as from her boyfriend and colleagues.

The plot rattles along like the Platte Valley Trolley with each fresh revelation leading to an ever more vexing question, and ciphers discovered between the pages of seemingly unrelated books – the twists and turns emerge thick and fast.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is not a cosy or frivolous tale, more a disquieting mystery set against the background of a changing city, which should appeal to crime fiction readers and bookish literature lovers alike. It has a few rough edges, but no more so than one would expect from a first novel. In the main it is a cracking read and would make an ideal gift for a whodunnit aficionado.

Many thanks to Random House UK for supplying a copy of this title for review.