DEATH THREATS and other stories . . . Between the covers

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Penguin have been quietly publishing new translations of all the Maigret novels and short stories for the last few years, and this is a recent collection of stories. What more is there to say about Georges Simenon? For me, the genius is in the economy. He never wastes a line, never provides an unnecessary description, and never uses twenty words when ten will do. He remains, quite simply, the master story-teller.

Monsieur Owen

Maigret is on holiday. He has taken the opportunity because Madame Maigret is away in Brittany tending to an ailing aunt. He is in one of the best hotels in Cannes. Rather out of his price range? Perhaps, but he has a friend in the trade, Monsieur Louis, an man who was once one of the top hoteliers in Paris, and a man who owes Maigret a favour or two. The detective “had eaten like a horse, drunk like a sailor and soaked up the sun through every pore like a bathing belle.” But his reverie is interrupted when M. Louis knocks on his door to say there has been a terrible murder. A mysterious guest called Monsieur Owen has taken rooms in the hotel along with his attractive young nurse. And now, a body has been found, naked and dead, in the bath of Monsieur Owen’s room – but it is not Monsieur Owen! In the pages that follow, Simenon weaves a delightfully complex mystery – and Maigret provides an equally intricate solution. This was first published as a magazine story in 1938.

Cafe New

This is slightly unusual, as it was also first published in 1938, just seven years after Simenon introduced Maigret in Pietr-le-Letton, and yet in this story Maigret has retired after a long career with the Paris police, and is living in Meung-sur-Loire. He is grumpy and bored, so Madame Maigret persuades him to join a nightly card school in a town café. The men play Manille, a variant of Whist. It is a game for four players, and one of the group – the town butcher, a family man – is reputed to have eyes for Angèle, the café waitress. When the butcher is found dead in his van, killed by a bullet from a wartime revolver, everyone – including the young police inspector investigating the death – expects Maigret to take charge of the case. He refuses, quite churlishly, and retires to his shed to fuss over his fishing tackle. It is only some time later, when Maigret and his wife attend the funeral of the café owner’s wife, that he reveals the reason for his silence and, once again, Simenon gives us a beautifully symmetrical solution.

Man On

This was first published under the title Le prisonnier de la rue in the Sept jours newspaper (15th and 22nd December 1940). It is worth noting at this point that Simenon remained in France during the  occupation but none of the Maigret stories set during the war references the German presence. Operating as a civilian policeman in wartime Paris would have been a very different experience from what we read here. What the papers are calling THE BAGATELLE MURDER because the body – of a handsome young Viennese doctor –  was found near La Porte der Bagatelle is puzzling Maigret and his  trusty team, Torrence, Lucas and Janvier. Eventually, they identify a suspect, and take it in turns to follow him through the streets of a wintry Paris. The man – identified as a Pole – becomes more haggard and hungry as his money runs out until, exhausted and desperate, he surrenders to Maigret. Simenon gleefully lets us know that the killing was un crime passionelle but then pulls the rug out from under our feet as he reveals who fired the fatal shot.

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Maigret is working as the head of the Nantes Flying Squad, and he is summoned south to a God-forsaken village in a marshy area of the Vendée. Groux, A farmer down on his luck, has been forced to sell his property and has arranged a Candle Auction (click the link for an explanation) in the local inn, run by former criminal Frédéric, his slatternly wife Julia and barmaid Thérèse. During a lengthy card game on the evening preceding the auction, one of the prospective bidders – Bourchain – is found dead in his bed, his head ruined by blows from a hammer, and his wallet – containing the thousands of francs with which he intended to buy the farm – missing. Maigret creates his own version of the classic locked room mystery by re-assembling the participants in the card game, and painstakingly forces them to re-enact every card played, every break for drinks and every trip to the toilet until he discovers who wielded the coal hammer that shatters Bourchain’s head. Not for the first time, we play cherchez la femme. This was first published in serial form in 1942.

Death Threrats

A wealthy (to the tune of three million francs) rag and bone man, Emile Grosbois has requested a meeting with Maigret’s boss, and has produced a letter composed of words cut from a newspaper. It is a threatening prediction that Grosbois will be dead before before 6.00pm on the following Sunday. The Grosbois family – Emile, twin brother Oscar, their widowed sister Françoise and her two grown-up children Eliane and Henri – live on the premises of the scrap yard, but travel down to their riverside home outside Paris every weekend. Maigret is told he must join the family for the duration of the fateful weekend, and if the great man ever suffered a more miserable few days, Simenon never told us about it. The tensions between the disfunctional family simmer and burn until – just before the doom hour of 6.00pm – Maigret must intervene to save a man’s life and, in doing so, unmask the would-be murderer. This was first published, in serial form, as Menaces de Mort in 1942.


THE TV DETECTIVES . . . Part two

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You can never have too many Detective Inspectors, can you? Well, I’m afraid you can in crime novels and TV adaptations, and a DI’s annual convention would need to book a very large hotel and conference centre. My ‘best of’ list only has twenty five names on it, and so some famous names had to accept early retirement. Apologies to fans of Banks, Barnaby, Lynley, Thorne and Wycliffe (OK, he was a Superintendent) – but there are always the box sets to enjoy. My next selection of TV series to remember starts with the most elderly, date-wise.

0014In more recent times Michael Gambon and Rowan Atkinson have made decent stabs at characterising Jules Maigret, Simenon’s Parisian detective, but the Rupert Davies version is the one for me. The grainy black and white presentation would now be considered as un hommage to moody 1940s crime films but, more prosaically, it was all our TV sets could cope with back in the day. Maybe it was the iconic title sequence – the match being struck to light the ever-present pipe, with Ron Grainer’s haunting accordion soundtrack. Maybe it was a teenage Brit’s first glimpse of those beautiful rakish Citroen cars. Maybe it was Ewen Solon’s brilliant turn as Maigret’s sidekick Lucas, but whatever the reason, this was TV gold. (1960 – 1963)

0013The twenty four novels by Reginald Hill featuring the overweight and irascible Yorkshire copper Andy Dalziel had the fat man firmly centre stage, but when he was brought to the small screen, his rather more politically correct Sergeant, Peter Pascoe shares the billing. There were eleven series between 1996 and 2007 and Warren Clarke played Dalziel throughout, Clarke was certainly blunt and low on corporate charm, but he was never quite as gross as the written character. The series had tremendous writers, including Malcolm Bradbury and Alan Plater in the early days. Pascoe’s lecturer wife Ellie provided what we would now call a ‘woke’ response to Dalziel’s ‘gammon’ but by series six she and Peter they had gone their separate ways, his disdain for wrong-doers clashing once to often with her metropolitan liberal values.

0012Another Sunday evening comfort blanket was provided by the long running – fifteen series between 1992 and 2010 – A Touch of Frost. Here was another policeman who, like Andy Dalziel, trod on toes and infuriated his superiors. William ‘Jack’ Frost, however, was less abrasive and with a more melancholy approach to life’s vicissitudes. Sir David Jason was a National Treasure before he took on the mantle of Frost, and his wonderful combination of jaunty disregard for protocol and inner sadness was masterful. RD Wingfield only wrote six Frost novels, and so the TV series outdistanced the books by many a mile. One of the delights of the show was the constant sparring between Frost and his starchy boss Superintendent Mullett, beautifully played by Bruce Alexander.

0011The Hazell books were an oddity. They were written by jobbing Scots journalist Gordon Williams, with the unlikely assistance of football’s wide-boy, Terry ‘El Tel’ Venables. Under the pseudonym PB Yuill, they were tight and well-written tales of a London wide boy making a living as a private detective. On screen, Nicholas Ball – all bouffant hair, snappy clothes and attitude – was simply perfect. As a general rule, British PI dramas are never going to compete with their USA counterparts in the violent, mean and noirish stakes, but the Hazell shows tapped into a ‘cheeky cockney’ chic which could only have worked in a London setting. Stuart Radmore, who sometimes writes for Fully Booked, is an erudite and voracious collector of rare crime novels, but one of his most prized possessions is a glossy covered Hazell annual, with graphic novel versions of stories, with helpful translations of cockney rhyming slang, The trendy locations combined with solid support from actors such as Roddy MacMillan made this relatively short lived series one to be remembered with affection. (1978 – 1979) For Stuart’s take on the Hazell books, click this link.

0010Fictional enquiry agents are supposed to wear old raincoats and no-one wore one quite like Frank Marker in Public Eye. World-weary, downtrodden, shabby, tired and frequently unsuccessful, Marker was played brilliantly by Alfred Burke. Public Eye was intended as a counterweight to flashy, urbane detective series headed up by some lantern-jawed alpha male rodding around in a flashy car. First written by Roger Marshall and Anthony Marriot, the show aired on on ABC television in 1965, in glorious black and white. The last episode of the final series, the seventh, was broadcast in April 1975 and was in colour. The glossier format had no effect on Marker’s misfortunes, and by then he had been in prison, as well as changing locations from London to Brighton and then to Eton. Public Eye could only have succeeded in Britain. Certainly Colombo was dishevelled and apparently scatterbrained, but he always had the last laugh. Not so Frank Marker, who frequently ended up with the proverbial egg on his face. The British – English, even – predilection for the enigmatic and downbeat was echoed in the intriguing titles of many of the episodes. “Well—There Was This Girl, You See…”,Cross That Palm When We Come To It” and “Nobody Kills Santa Claus” were typical. Alfred Burke was also a theatrical actor of great distinction. He died in 2011, a few days short of his 93rd birthday.

0009Ian Rankin’s saturnine Edinburgh copper John Rebus, over the course of twenty two best-selling novels, has become the doyen of gritty Scottish coppers – often imitated but never bettered. With so many examples of voracious demand for TV productions outstripping the original novels by other authors, it is worth noting that there were just fourteen TV episodes between 2000 and 2007, and there was a change of Rebus in there, too. John Hannah was our man in the first series, but Ken Stott took on the role for the other three series. Opinion is divided on their respective merits. Some said that Hannah did not match the physicality of the detective, but others thought his version had more psychological depth than the later episodes. The crucial support characters of DS Siobhan Clarke and DCI Gill Templer also changed actors across the series. Given that Rebus has an army background where he even graduated to the elite SAS, the abrasive Ken Stott has my vote, for what it’s worth.

0008Idris Elba, the star of Luther, cut his crime drama teeth in the American series The Wire, but when Luther first appeared in 2010, it was obvious that Elba had made the big time as the conflicted, violent but analytical London DCI. The plots were dark and full of menace, and the writers struck gold when they introduced the character of Alice Morgan, a psychopathic killer. After Luther fails in his attempt to to bring her to justice, it becomes clear that there is more unites Luther and Morgan than divides them, thus raising the uncomfortable thought that there is a fine line between ruthless policing and getting away with serious crime. Series Five of the drama in 2019 was, effectively a movie length production, split into four episodes broadcast on consecutive nights. Luther’s chaotic personal life comes back not only to haunt him, but it seems to weave a fatal web around everyone – colleague or criminal – who becomes involved with him. The violence was as graphic as anything seen on British TV for some time, and the story ended by posing more questions than it answered about the future of DCI John Luther.

0007While Ruth Rendell was a master at writing stand-alone psychological thrillers, her creation of Chief Inspector Reg Wexford will be her abiding achievement in the eyes of many readers and viewers of TV crime dramas. He first appeared an improbable 56 years ago in From Doon With Death and his last appearance in print was in No Man’s Nightingale (2013) just two years before Rendell’s death. It wasn’t until 1987, however, that he first appeared on TV screens.There were twelve series in all, lasting until 2000. The first title was The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, but as Wexford became something of a fixture, the name changed to The Inspector Wexford Mysteries. Wexford was, however, to play an increasingly marginal role in the later broadcasts, as the writers played Lego with various fragments and short stories from the author. George Baker was Reg Wexford and those whose only memory of him is as the avuncular, rather old-fashioned family man – with an endearing Hampshire burr – may be surprised to learn that Baker had been a dashing male lead in his day, so much so that he was Ian Fleming’s first choice as a screen James Bond. As always in great TV shows, there was stellar teamwork from such supporting actors as Christopher Ravenscroft as the waspish and rather uptight Mike Burden, and Louie Ramsay as Dora Wexford, his long suffering wife.

0006Prime Suspect broke new TV ground in many ways. It was certainly the first notable crime drama centred on a female character, and it also created an appetite among TV viewers for movie length dramas to be broadcast on consecutive nights, such as a long Bank Holiday weekend. By the time the series began in 1991, Helen Mirren was already an established box office star, having gone from Shakespeare to Broadway and conquering all before her. The only time I ever saw her live was at the RSC in 1970, when she was a mesmerising Elizabeth Woodville being brutally wooed by Norman Rodway’s Richard III. Mirren brought both glamour and determination to the role of DCI (to become Detective Superintendent) Jane Tennison. There were seven series between 1991 and 2006 and for the first five at least the viewing figures were in the 14 million range. So did people just tune in to see a genuine ‘ball-breaker’ in action? Certainly anti-female bias in the police force was part of the deal, but a brilliant initial concept by writer Lynda LaPlante, superb supporting turns from actors like Tom Bell, Tom Wilkinson, Zoe Wanamaker, Ralph Fiennes and Mark Strong and, of course, Mirren’s own nuanced and steely brilliance meant that the show could hardly go wrong.


Part One of the feature is HERE


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