Translated from the French by Helen Sebba
Published by Penguin Books, 2007; 186 pages
While sunning herself on a park bench, waiting to keep an appointment with her dentist, Madame Maigret is surprised when a young woman wearing a white hat asks her to look after her child. The two women are only casual acquaintances, but Madame Maigret agrees – and ends up sitting with the child all afternoon, wondering what's happened to his mother. When the woman reappears many hours later, she snatches the little boy and whisks him off in a taxi without a word of apology or explanation. Meanwhile, Madame Maigret's husband Chief Inspector Maigret has his men investigating what might or might not be a murder at the home of a Parisian bookbinder. An anonymous tip has turned up some alarming clues in the bookbinder's apartment and basement workshop, including a man's suit covered in blood, and a few human teeth! But without a corpse to go with them, the grisly items aren't enough to prove that a murder has been committed – a fact that leaves the Chief Inspector frustrated, puzzled and just generally grumpy. And as the story meanders along, Maigret comes to believe that the possible murder may have some connection with his wife's encounter with the woman in the white hat.
I've seen several different TV and film versions of Maigret over the years, but this was the first time I'd read any of the novels. And though I hate to admit it, I was a little disappointed in the book. (Perhaps it lost something in the translation – always a definite possibility.) The major characters were interesting enough, especially Maigret and his wife, of course. But there were so many minor characters popping in and out – policemen, lawyers, suspects, witnesses, bystanders – that I kept losing track. And it wasn't really obvious that the two separate story lines had anything to do with each other – Maigret saw a connection but it seemed to be simply that a taxi ride was involved in both incidents. Rather a thin hunch to go on, even for such a seasoned investigator.
One part of the book I did enjoy was a brief section where Madame Maigret takes matters into her own hands (even she seems to believe the investigation is taking too long) and mounts a search through the milliners' shops of Paris, looking for a copy of the woman's white hat. As she tells Maigret, after she returns home:
"The hat, of course! . . . I thought it wasn't a man's job. A coat and skirt is a coat and skirt, especially a blue one. But a hat, that's different, and I'd had a good look at this one. They've been wearing white hats for several weeks now. Only one hat is never exactly like another." [p.94]I hope it's not too much of a spoiler to say that she has some success in her search, which pleases Maigret so much he's not even annoyed that her escapade means she hasn't had time to cook him a hot dinner.
Georges Simenon wrote over seventy Inspector Maigret novels, plus a number of short stories featuring the detective – beginning in the 1930s and continuing until the 1970s. The Friend of Madame Maigret was first published in 1950; it comes roughly in the middle of the series and probably is not the best place to start an acquaintance with the famous police inspector. So even though I wasn't really favorably impressed, I won't say I'll never read another Maigret. I certainly think he's worth a second chance.