“What I’m telling you may not be pretty. But I’ve been watching you. You look like a man who can understand.” That line of dialogue, spoken to the benignly gruff Inspector Maigret and uttered by a suspect under interrogation, suggests the essence of Maigret’s power. It’s Maigret’s job to smoke out the ugly truths that hide in the folds on ordinary French life, and he does so not just by possessing a deep awareness of the ways of humankind, but by projecting that quality among those who cross his investigative path. Here, his mere presence in the seaside village of Concarneau exerts an almost physical influence on the atmosphere of the town: Wayward clues, and the confessed secrets of wayward souls, attach to him as inexorably as metal filings attach to a magnet.
The criminal incident that draws Maigret from Paris to Concarneau is a curious one: A local wine merchant, tipsy after a night of card-playing and conviviality at the Admiral Hotel, stumbles through the town’s near-empty streets. Buffeted by a storm-loosed wind, he stops in a doorway to light a match, and immediately shots ring out. Did someone really intend to kill this apparently inconsequential fellow? Who, in any event, would have known that he’d be passing by that doorway at that late hour? Other crimes, or indications of crime, follow. Stray clues multiply. The yellow dog of the title, for instance, looms for Maigret as a sure sign that something odd is afoot. The dog also functions as a symbol—as a figure of vague menace that flits in and out of view. A symbol of what? Of fear, more or less. Raw, animal fear is a pivotal theme of this novel.
As ever in the casebook of Maigret, the search for clues and the hunt for criminals matter less than a receptivity to less tangible forms of human truth. Simenon, as if to highlight his disdain for traditional modes of detection, provides Maigret with a comic foil—a sidekick named Inspector Leroy, who favors the latest scientific sleuthing methods. Leroy dashes about, making plaster casts of footprints and conducting chemical analyses of liquor bottles, and in general comes across as a feckless skimmer of the surface of things. Maigret, meanwhile, practices a kind of anti-method that lets him plumb the depth of things while seeming to do very little. He presides over the unwinding of a plot that (like the plot in many Sherlock Holmes tales) traces its origins to a past injustice and finds its impetus in a bid for revenge. Less a mystery story than a moral fable, Yellow Dog delivers the age-old message that sin begets sin, and that a man’s worst sins will come back to bite him.
Simenon deftly roots his fable in the here-and-now of a Depression-ravaged provincial town. He limns the foreclosed horizon that residents of a tourist locale see in front of them during the dreary off-season months of the year, and he poignantly evokes the patterns of economic hardship and personal exploitation that circumscribe their behavior. (To wit: More than one character off-handedly notes that of course a waitress or a servant girl will share a bed with a well-off man, in the hope of getting a franc or two for her trouble.) In brief, there’s no shortage of objects for the powerful intuitive sympathy that is Maigret’s trademark.