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THE BAR ON THE SEINE


By Georges Simenon; translated by David Watson

Penguin Books, 2007 ($12.00)
ISBN: 978-0-14-303831-3

Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel

On a beautiful June afternoon, Inspector Maigret paid a solemn visit on Jean Lenoir, a convicted murderer, on the eve of his execution. Maigret was the arresting officer, and had narrowly escaped being shot by the young man, but in the three months since then he had become fond of him. Even though the two accomplices bore more guilt than Lenoir, he took all the blame, refusing to name names. Now, at the end of his life, he still refuses to squeal, but he does tell Maigret an intriguing story about a crime he’d witnessed at the beginning of his own criminal career.

He and his buddy Victor Gailliard were out one night, up to no good, when they witnessed a man dumping a body into the river. They followed the man home and proceeded to blackmail him for a couple of years, until the victim disappeared. Now, six years later, the man has resurfaced, and Jean wants him to pay for his crime. He refuses to give Maigret the name, reluctant to the end to be a squealer, but tells him to find the "Guinguette a Deux Sous."

Maigret is supposed to be joining his wife, who’s spending the summer with her sister in Alsace. He is reluctant to do so, instead getting wrapped up in solving Lenoir’s alleged crime. A search of the records is little help: seven unidentified corpses were pulled from the river at the relevant time. In a bit of amazing synchronicity, while he is trying to buy a new hat he overhears a man purchasing a top hat tell the clerk he is on his way to a mock wedding at a "Guinguette a Deux Sous." Of course Maigret follows him, as he goes to a hot sheet hotel with a lover, then on to his home to collect his wife and child, and finally into the countryside. The principles in the mock wedding are gathering in the village, and many are already drunk or well on their way to that state. A young man named James welcomes Maigret into the fold. A good time is had by all, until one of the party dies of a gunshot wound the next day. Is it murder or suicide? Marcel Basso, the man Maigret followed, is found with the smoking gun in his hand, but he swears his innocence.

Maigret returns to Paris, but the case won’t let him go. When the suspect makes a run for it, the inspector helps track him down, uncovering evidence of greed, infidelity and blackmail among the seemingly ordinary folks who gather at the Guinguette a Deux Sous. His investigatory technique, as described in this book, is in two phases: 1. Enter the "foreign" world of the crime, where people may well be hostile, cunning or closed-mouth to his questioning, sniffing out clues by observing their reactions. 2. When the first lead appears, follow it step by step to the next clue, and the next, and so on until the case is solved. THE BAR ON THE SEINE demonstrates this technique very well. Inspector Maigret lived in a simpler, more innocent world, and it is a pleasure to visit the streets of Paris and the French countryside with him.

For those wondering what a "Guinguette a Deux Sous" might be -- a guinguette was a surburban tavern or café where people came on weekends and holidays to dance, eat and drink in the open, usually by the riverside. Its popularity ended by the late 1930’s. Music was often provided by a mechanical piano, and in this case it costs two sous to play a song -- hence "deux sous."


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