The Grand Banks Café by Georges Simenon is the eighth book in the Inspector Maigret series, a gripping novel set in an insular fishing community.
There’s a subgenre of mystery fiction that we might call the Interrupted Vacation. This plotline finds our hero on holiday when—wouldn’t you know it—a body pops up, and the detective has to abandon his or her leisure in order to go set the world right again. Virtually every series hero has one or two of these stories somewhere in their oeuvre. Think of Holmes and Watson going on their ill-fated holiday in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” or Hercule Poirot’s attempt to vacation in Devon in Evil Under the Sun. Closer to home, it seems like Murder, She Wrote was based almost entirely on the concept of the Interrupted Vacation.
Simeon’s Inspector Maigret had more than his share of ruined holidays. In 1947’s Maigret’s Holiday (alternately titled, appropriately enough, No Vacation for Maigret), the inspector tries to pass a few nice days in Les Sables-d'Olonne with his wife, but of course, work intrudes. In Maigret’s Little Joke (1957), he tries to take two weeks off for a stay-at-home vacation. Guess how that turns out. In Maigret Takes the Waters (1967), he tries to relax in Vichy for his health. No dice. The best of Maigret’s Interrupted Vacations, however, came relatively early in the series: the ninth book, 1931’s The Grand Banks Café (aka Maigret Answers a Plea).
The book begins with Maigret canceling a planned holiday in Alsace with Madame Maigret. Instead, he suggests that they take their vacation by the sea, in Fécamp, so that he can respond to a request from an old friend. His friend Jorissen is a teacher there, and one of Jorissen’s former students, Pierre Le Clinche, stands accused of murder. “I am absolutely sure that he’s innocent,” Jorissen writes Maigret. “Do everything you can, old friend, just as if you were doing it for me.”
What’s the inspector to do? He and Madame Maigret head to the port city where they learn the details of the case. Clinche had served as the radio operator on the trawler Océan. As soon as the ship returned from its voyage, however, the captain, Octave Fallut, was murdered. Suspicions have now fallen on Clinche, but Maigret is inclined to believe that the young man is innocent when he learns that the last voyage of the Océan seems to have been cursed from the start.
Investigating, Maigret discovers that a sailor broke his leg while the ship was still in port, and then, just a few days into the voyage, the young cabin boy, Jean-Marie, was swept overboard during the storm. Were these events connected? Are they in some way connected to the death of the captain? No one on the crew seems to want to talk about what happened while the ship was out to sea. Now, with the captain dead, Clinche behind bars, and the ship’s catch of fish going to waste because it was improperly salted, the whole disastrous affair is shrouded in secrets.
The breakthrough in the case comes when Maigret uncovers the captain’s shady mistress, Adèle, a woman who is “seductive, desirable in the full bloom of her animal presence, magnificent in her sensuality.” What could she have to do with this mess? The inspector doesn’t know, but he intuits that she’s the key to the mystery.
As is always the case with a Maigret novel, the solution is less about the who than the why. Often, the inspector begins not with physical clues or circumstantial evidence. He begins with the victim. Who was this ship’s captain? Maigret begins to form a picture of the “small, middle aged man who returned to port after a long tour on a trawler and spent his winters living like an upstanding citizen…” Discovering his secret relationship with the questionable Adèle, he begins to wonder why Fallut “had never appeared once in public with his unknown woman. Was it the grand passion, his belated big adventure? Or just a sordid affair?”
Maigret will, of course, find the answers to these questions, and they will help lead him to discover who killed the captain. But the book, like so many Maigret novels, doesn’t end in an altogether tidy way. Simenon wraps up The Grand Banks Café with two brief anecdotes about Maigret running into a couple of characters profoundly connected to the case of the ship’s captain. These small touches are a Simenon specialty, a way to show us that even in a book about a murder, life always goes on.
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Jake Hinkson is the author of several books, including the novel No Tomorrow and the essay collection The Blind Alley: Exploring Film Noir's Forgotten Corners.