The man whose head is almost literally at stake in this novel—an early entry in the Inspector Maigret saga—is Joseph Heurtin, a simple-minded fellow whose ill-starred life has led him to a death-row cell at La Santé prison in Paris. Heurtin awaits execution for the murder of a wealthy American widow and her maid, and it was Maigret’s police work that helped convict him of that crime. But in a cinematically thrilling first chapter, Maigret engineers a prison break that sends Heurtin into the gloomy expanse of Paris at night. The inspector has been nursing doubts about Heurtin’s guilt, and his plan is to let the escapee trace a path that will (so he hopes) wend its way to the real killer.
This high-risk gambit launches Maigret and his men on a chase that extends to a seedy hotel along the Seine, to a derelict mansion in the Parisian suburbs, and ultimately to the American bar at La Coupule, a fabled café in Montparnasse that appears to be a focal point of the intrigue that resulted in Heurtin’s arrest (wrongful or otherwise) for a brutal double homicide. La Coupule is a microcosm of Café Society, a realm where idle wealth rubs shoulders with indigent Bohemia. Simenon excels at vividly limning all manner of specific locations, but he uses that talent to the fullest in describing the café and its denizens. As the action shifts to that spot, Maigret trains his gaze on a small set of its patrons: a glamorous American couple, Mr. and Mrs. William Kirby, who might have stepped out the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel; Edna Reichberg, an inscrutable Swedish heiress who might have graced a tale by Vicki Baum; and Johann Radek, a Czech native whose early promise has curdled into bitterness—an existentialist anti-hero who might have sprung from the mind of Dostoevsky or Kafka. An unseen lattice of connections binds these characters to Heurtin, and Maigret makes it his mission to bring this pattern into view.
The plot that drives A Man’s Head is inventive but not ingenious. As in most of his exploits, Maigret doesn’t follow clues in the usual sense of that term. He follows grand intuitions that he declines to reveal until he has rounded up his quarry. The core revelation in this case arrives as a clever and satisfying reversal of what precedes it. Simenon, however, does little to prepare the narrative ground for that twist.
In that respect, this compact thriller (it’s scarcely longer than a novella) resembles a typical adventure in the Sherlock Holmes canon. The comparison is more apt than it may seem: Although Holmes and Maigret appear to embody wholly different methods of detection—Holmes practices dispassionate ratiocination, whereas Maigret favors empathic intuition—their feats of discovery are often less compelling than the sordid events that they expose. As Arthur Conan Doyle does in many of the Holmes stories, Simenon predicates the story here on dark and disturbing schemes that unfold in the hidden recesses of urban life. And like many Holmes tales, this Maigret tale functions less as a well-designed puzzle than as a parable about the desperation and depravity that can afflict (seemingly) ordinary citizens. More broadly, Simenon shares with Doyle a profound knack for weaving magic with words. In his hands, readers don’t just suspend disbelief; they eagerly believe any outlandish thing that he wants them to believe.
[ADDENDUM: Next week, I’ll be visiting Paris and doing my best impression of a not-so-young Jeff Marle. While I’m there, I plan to read one or two contemporary novels that evoke the timeless “mysteries of Paris”; reviews of those works may show up here someday. But, to whet my appetite for the trip, I partook of this bite-sized treat of a novel—a Golden Age work that takes place during what was essentially a golden age for Americans in Paris. À bientôt!]