The Carter of La Providence by Georges Simenon
I’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 Trussel.com, 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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You 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.