Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Boats

Maigret #4

The Carter of La Providence by Georges Simenon

Maigret 4I’m so enjoying treating myself to a Maigret when I need a palate cleanser between reading longer books. This one in its new translation by David Coward, is the fourth of Penguin’s new editions, second according to, the site which is my Maigret bible, which also tells me that it was previously published as: Lock 14 in the noughties, Maigret meets a Milord in the 1960s, and The Crime at Lock 14 in the 1930s (Lock 14 being the title of the first chapter). Once again the new Penguin editions revert to a translation of the original title which is a good thing. Indeed, I found I had a copy of Lock 14 (trans R.Baldick).  Why do they change book titles?

The novel is set on the banks of the river Marne, near Dizy on the outskirts of Épernay in the heart of the champagne region. A woman’s body is discovered in the stables by the café at Lock 14.

It was obvious that the woman belonged to a class where people were more likely to ride in expensive motor-cars and travel by sleeper than walk.
… Her earrings were real pearls worth about 15,000 frances.
… Her fair was brown, waved and cut very short at the nape of the neck and temples.
… The face, contorted by the effects of strangulation, must have been unusually pretty.
No doubt a bit of a tease. (p7)

The lock on the river is two miles outside the town so only easily accessible by barge/boat. The owner of the Cafe de la Marine or the lock-keeper knew everyone who had passed through on the river the previous day. Who was the woman?  Who killed her?

It’s a difficult case for Inspector Maigret, effectively a ‘locked’ room mystery (geddit!). However, things start to clarify – and get more complex – with the arrival of a yacht, the Southern Cross, owned by Englishman Sir Walter Lampson, and his assortment of crew and other guests on board. He identifies the woman as his wife.

She may have been his wife, but he doesn’t know much about her former life; neither does anyone else it seems. Maigret surmises there must be a link with the barge La Providence – a traditional horse-drawn barge. It was the only barge moored nearby the night she died. The old carter, Jean, is not a talkative sort, more at home with his horses than humans.

Lampson’s friend Willy Marco will also end up drowned in the lock – maybe he saw something. The bluff Englishman, a retired Colonel, now a seasonal traipser between homes on his yacht, is difficult to read, despite Maigret speaking English fairly well. As the boats cannot be held indefinitely, they carry on their journeys along the river – they can’t go anywhere else after all.

However, Maigret will be forced to ride km after km up and down the towpath on a borrowed bicycle, chasing after the yacht and the barge over the next days as he picks at the problem and works it all out with the help of Inspector Lucas looking things up for him. The image of Maigret, whom we are always reminded as having a large physical presence riding 50km on a bicycle in his overcoat and puffing on his pipe, is quite amusing!

What got me in this Maigret story was the weather. It is raining for almost the entire novel, at other times damp and foggy, making the canal/river seem so dull, but Simenon captures the life of the itinerant bargees well (he had explored the French waterways on his own boat). It takes the arrival of the colourful English Milord to liven things up, however, as we’ll discover, some of those regulars may have had a colourful past themselves. What Simenon does well in this story is to capture the essence of the privileged life of Lampson and his friends – but it’s clear too that it hasn’t necessarily made them happy! The mystery isn’t a difficult one, but the atmosphere and the characterisation make up for that.

I’ve read some criticism of Coward’s translation (notably in an Amazon review by ‘Lucas’) who much prefers Baldick’s one. Sadly, I disposed of my old copy when I got the new one, so can’t now compare. Coward apparently sometimes goes for ease of reading rather than lexical accuracy, adding in words or using more modern expressions. I can’t comment on that, but I still enjoyed The Carter of La Providence a lot though. (8/10)

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atkinson simenonYou may have read that Rowan Atkinson will play Maigret in some new films for ITV next year – I’ve just found a photo of him in costume. I’m thinking that he is inhabiting that overcoat nicely.  I’m now looking forward to seeing the films. What do you think?

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Source: via PFD – Thank you.

Georges Simenon, The Carter of La Providence, trans David Coward. Penguin (2014), paperback, 160 pages.

Re-reading one of my favourite books…

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

I’ve now finished my re-read of Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, that I told you about a few days ago here.

When I finished the book the first time, so sure was I that I’d be re-reading, and hopefully re-loving, it that I bought myself a luxury numbered edition with specially commissioned foldout cover, (one of a number of editions celebrating publisher 4th Estate’s 25th anniversary).

I shut the covers this morning with a definite sense of relief. The memory of my first encounter had remained untarnished, so I loved it all over again.

The first time I read it back in the 1990s,  I remember devouring it, hungry for the story of the misfit Quoyle, who moves to the home of his ancestors after being a failure in New York state. I desperately wanted poor Quoyle to find himself and to find love in Newfoundland.

On the second time through, I took it at a more sedate pace, which enabled me to luxuriate in  the colourful characters, their hopes and fears – and everyone of them looking for love in one form or another.  As Quoyle’s best friend Partridge puts it, “Everything that counts is for love, Quoyle. It’s the engine of life.” 

Proulx’s descriptions of people are so evocative. Take Petal Bear, the object of Quoyle’s affections …

Then, at a meeting, Petal Bear. Thin, moist, hot. Winked at him. Quoyle had the big man’s yearning for small women. He stood next to her at the refreshment table. Grey eyes close together, curly hair, the colour of oak. The fluorescent light made her as pale as candle wax. Her eyelids gleamed with some dusky unguent. A metallic thread in her rose sweater. These faint sparks cast a shimmer on her like a spill of light. She smiled, the pearl-tinted lips wet with cider.

You just know she’s going to be bad news…

Petal Bear was crosshatched with longings, but not, after they were married, for Quoyle. Desire reversed to detestation like a rubber glove turned inside out.

The Shipping News - 1st UK paperbackSoon she runs off with a lover having sold their two daughters to a shady character, and is promptly killed in a car wreck.  His girls reclaimed, Quoyle is persuaded by his Aunt, Agnis Hamm to go with her to start again in Newfoundland, living in and doing up their family’s old home.

Quoyle, who had been an occasional journalist, uses his connections to get a job on the local rag The Gammy Bird. Jack Buggit, the owner, has strong opinions on what sells papers, and Quoyle, still raw from Petal’s demise, is given the task of reporting on car wrecks plus the shipping news.  Agnis meanwhile sets up a yacht upholstery shop.

It takes Quoyle a while to get used to the physical distances between people in Newfoundland. They may be spaced apart and there aren’t so many of them, but they do all know nearly everything about each other – news and gossip travel travel faster than motor cars.  Although their house is not ideal, they start to settle into the community, and they get used to the ever-changing seascape.

Blunt fogbows in the morning trip around the bay. Humps of color followed qualls. Billy Pretty babbled of lunar halos. Storms blew in and out. Sudden sleet changed to glowing violet rods, collapsed in rain. Two, three days of heat as though blown from a desert. Fibres of light crawling down the bay like luminous eels.

The Shipping News - current UK paperbackI spent my first years out of university living near and working in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, where I caught the Gorleston ferry across the river estuary to work and did a lot of watching the sea.  Although, as a young woman from South London, I found it hard to fit in socially there I did like being by the sea a lot, and the working port side of the town was always exciting.  Proulx’s town of Killick-Claw sounds somewhat similar, but  more friendly, a place I’d stay in longer than twenty two months. If I’d chanced to make friends and meet some characters, maybe I’d have been tempted to reside there longer, like Nutbeem, an Englishman who drifted through and covers the home news beat.

‘I’m going to remember this place for many things,’ said Nutbeem. ‘But most of all for the inventive violence and this tearing-off-of-clothes-in-court business. Seems to be a Newfoundland speciality…’

In her acknowledgements, Proulx credits the influence of The Ashley Book of Knots, a 1944 encyclopedia of, well, knots.  It gave her hero his name, Quoyle; the first chapter is prefaced with a definition from that book of such a coil of rope:

A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary.

Oh poor Quoyle, to start off described thus, although things do improve for him of course. Further quotations and diagrams from the book are sprinkled throughout chapter headings. They are always pertinent to the pathway of that chapter, and add considerably to the novel’s charm.

My re-read of Proulx’s second novel has confirmed it for me in my pantheon of desert island books (see tab above). I love everything about this quirky book (10/10).

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, 4th Estate paperback.
The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W Ashley (O/P, used copies available at a price!).

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