Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses (Maigret 53) by Georges Simenon

Family dynamics…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When Léonard Lachaume, head of the long-established Lachaume biscuit firm, is found shot dead in his bed, Maigret finds his family’s behaviour unusual. No one seems to be openly grieving and, unlike what normally happens in Maigret’s long experience, the family have not gathered together to support each other – instead they all seem to be keeping to their own rooms. It looks on the surface as if the shooting may have been the result of a burglary gone wrong, but right from the beginning Maigret has doubts about this theory. He wants to question the family more deeply but they have brought in their lawyer – another oddity at this stage in the investigation, Maigret feels – and the new young examining magistrate in charge of the case expects Maigret to play it strictly by the book, and do nothing without consulting him first. Maigret is feeling old…

Sometimes the short length of Maigret novels seems perfect to me for the story he tells, but occasionally I feel there’s more in there to be revealed and so the end seems very abrupt. This is one of the abrupt ones. The story is very good with quite a lot to say about the changes in French society at the time of writing – the mid ‘50s. Maigret himself is within a couple of years of retirement and is feeling that the changes to the investigation system, with examining magistrates now taking precedence over the police detectives, make him and his methods out of date. Not that he admits to having a method, really – he simply asks questions till he gets to the right answers. And now that magistrates have the right to take over the questioning, he feels his hands are tied.

Georges Simenon

I was very surprised at the talk of dowries, which are central to the story. I had no idea this system had continued so long in modern France. The Lachaume family has a respected name but no money, since their biscuits have long fallen out of favour with fickle public tastes. So the two sons of the family, Léonard and Armand, must marry for money. The two women they choose are daughters of self-made men, with plenty of money but no family pedigree. It all sounds quite medieval – although marrying for money still goes on informally in all societies, here it’s all contracted and formal, registered by a notary, and with little, if any, talk of love or even affection between the contracting parties. Needless to say, it doesn’t add up to a happy household, especially once the dowry money is all spent in a fruitless attempt to prop up the failing business.

Despite the restrictions on his usual methods, Maigret finds ways to work within the rules the examining magistrate sets him. His persistent but sympathetic questioning of witnesses allows him to get an understanding of the family dynamics, and this, together with his ability to guess at the hidden meaning of physical clues, enables him to finally get at the truth. However, it all comes together very suddenly in the end, and left me with one or two unanswered questions. An extra twenty or thirty pages could have turned this good novella into a great one. Still enjoyable, though, and well worth the few hours it takes to read.

Book 14 of 20

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33 thoughts on “Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses (Maigret 53) by Georges Simenon

  1. Two of my godchildren live in France and one of them, the woman, is in a very rural part of the country with very traditional in-laws and although the wasn’t any suggestion of a dowry I do remember a point when his family seriously looked to her parents (no better off than them) to provide the money for a house for the couple. Maybe that’s a hangover from what is being described here.

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    • It could be – there was definitely a sense in the way Simenon talked about it that the bride ought to bring wealth in some form to the marriage. I know our rich folk do all these things informally but it was the idea of it still being a formal system so recently that amazed me! I never met a man I’d have *paid* to marry me… 😉

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  2. I’m really surprised by the whole dowry thing, FictionFan – that’s not something I would have thought still happening that recently. One thing I’ve always liked about Simenon’s work is his eye for what’s happening in French society, though, so it doesn’t surprise me that he takes a look at dowries here. I also like the way he wrote about family dynamics – that’s not as easy to pull off as it can seem on the surface. Glad you liked this one, even if it was a bit short.

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    • I was staggered – I still find it hard to believe that France would still have that system so recently but it was also the way all the characters behaved as if it was all quite normal! It was as if Jane Austen had time-warped… 😉 Yes, the family in this one was interesting which was why I felt it was a bit abrupt – I’d have liked to have spent a bit longer getting to know more about them. But it didn’t spoil it for me happily.

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  3. I haven’t read this one, but it sounds intriguing. The bit about dowries surprised me, too. I don’t recall any other books I’ve read from that era where dowries were included — maybe it’s just a European thing, as opposed to American? Anyway, I appreciate your review and will have to see if I can find some of these Maigret stories.

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    • I’m now not sure if it’s a European thing – before I read this I’d have said confidently that none of the western European countries would have a system like this. But if they did until recently in France, maybe they did in other countries too! The Maigrets are variable but nearly always enjoyable, and a great length for reading in just one or two sessions

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  4. It’s not often you hear someone say they wish a book was longer! As for abrupt endings, I seem to find that happening more often in long novels… where you wonder if the author didn’t just get tired of it all and decide to wrap things up quickly!

    I would have thought dowries would have gone the way of women being considered chattel. Then again, I just finished a novel set in recent times where women aren’t treated much better than that.

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    • Haha, yes, I’m usually wishing they were shorter! It was just that I felt he could have let us see a bit more of the family dynamics and filled in a couple of holes – just a few pages more would have made all the difference. I think he used to write these incredibly quickly, so I suspect sometimes he really did just wrap it up to be done with it.

      I was staggered that dowries were still considered okay as recently as that in France, which I always think of as a modern society. I’m sure it happens unofficially among the rich all the time, but actually formalising it and everyone knowing about it sounds very odd…

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  5. Reminds me of the American heiresses who married into the British aristocracy to prop up the decline of the landed gentry. But I guess it wasn’t considered the same thing as expecting a dowry. Plus, both sides of the partnership “got something” from it, either social status or money.

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  6. I found the one Maigret novel I’ve read a little abrupt, too. I suppose the dowry thing is a trade-off although it reminds me a little of the answer Melania Trump made to a journalist when asked if she would have married DT had he not been rich, her answer was to ask if he would have married her if she had not been beautiful! It took me aback, but it obviously seemed fair to her.
    Biscuits going out of fashion! Now I’m truly horrified.

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    • I find the Maigrets quite variable – sometimes they feel just right and other times it’s as if he got fed up and just brought the whole thing to an end to kinda get it over with. Hahaha, isn’t that just such a Melania quote! Sometimes you can be too honest – they could each at least pretend they loved each other, if only for the sake of their poor child! Fear not! The fickle public had just found other biscuits they liked better… 😀

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      • I can understand getting fed up and just wanting something to finish. I sometimes feel like that writing my reviews, particularly when a book is okay, rather than great or terrible. For someone writing a book the feeling of wanting it all to be over must be a thousand times stronger. I wouldn’t be surprised if Melania just wanted it all to be over too, and possibly DT feels the same way. You’re right though, for the sake of the child they could make an effort. The poor fellow will have a hard enough time of life anyway.
        I must read more Maigret books. I got the feeling from the one I read that his style overall was terse.
        Thank goodness the biscuit thing was only a change of fashion! I can’t imagine life without biscuits.

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        • I find the OK books by far the hardest to review, and all my reviews of them end up sounding the same. Give me a book I love or hate! Haha, I’m actually surprised Melania is still with him, and I do wonder of their marriage will survive if he gets kicked out in November (please!!!). Though my sympathy for her has grown steadily less over the years – I reckon she’s just as obnoxious as he is. Maybe they’re a perfect match!

          I think the Maigret books are always quite terse – it’s why I tend to like rather than love them. I don’t feel we ever really get time to care much about the characters. But they’re still enjoyable. Good heavens, no! Unbearable thought!

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  7. It does seem as though this story could have done with a few more pages, as it sounds slightly more complex than the one you reviewed the other day, possibly because of the family dynamics. I certainly didn’t know dowries were still a thing in France as recently as the 1950s, but it is clearly historically accurate.

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    • Yes, the dowry thing amazes me – I know rich people still make financial agreements when they marry but it was the cold formality of it all. Not how I think of France and matters of love at all! I would have liked to spend more time with each member of the family – some of them we never really got to hear from at all. A couple more chapters would have made it much more satisfying, I think.

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  8. It’s interesting how much Michael Gambon reminds me of Georges Simenon when he played Maigret!

    Some Maigret novels have had the same effect on me as well. I had expected more of a polished, well-wrapped up ending like the Agatha Christie books.

    I also didn’t know that dowries were still in use at that time.

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    • Haha, I know – I always wonder if Simenon based Maigret on himself, since he’s exactly how I visualise him!

      Yes, sometimes they feel fine at the length they are, but this could have done with a couple more chapters to let us get to know the family members better. It’s not enough I’m demanding a book should be made longer! 😉 The dowry thing still astonishes me – not something I’d have expected in France as recently as that at all..

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  9. […] An interesting post from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about how long stories should be. In the post, FictionFan mentions that some stories end too abruptly, and could be expanded. On the other hand, we’ve all read fiction that would have benefited from cutting out a number of pages. So, how long is the right length for a story? Of course, the answer to that question depends a lot on the story itself. Some stories take longer to tell than others do. That’s why there’s microfiction, the short story, the novella, the novel, and so on. One of the skills in writing is choosing the story format that will best match the story. […]

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  10. Sorry to read about the abrupt ending. That always makes me wonder if the author got bored with the story and just wanted to end it and run.

    I’ve read some Maigret Simenon and want to read more. I’ll check out your other reviews on the series. A Simenon I loved, not Maigret, is The Train. Have you read it?

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    • I think he wrote these very quickly so I suspect he did maybe just feel, Ok, that’s done, and bring it to an end. It’s a pity because another couple of chapters would sometimes make them much more satisfying.

      I haven’t read any of his non-Maigret stuff, though I’d like to. Thanks for the recommendation – I shall add The Train to my list! I also haven’t read many of the Maigrets yet – maybe just half a dozen or so. I’ve enjoyed them all, but some more than others for sure.

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  11. I’ve just finished my first Maigret novel. It was a surprise that it was so short though it didn’t feel rushed particularly. I’ve been listening to audio versions of the books for years but never picked up on just how much drinking he does !

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    • Haha, every time it’s a different drink too. In this one he was drinking hot toddies against the cold, damp November weather. Fair enough, but in the morning?? I sometimes think they feel just the right length, but sometimes he just seems to suddenly cut to the denouement leaving some of the middle stuff out.

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  12. I really enjoy the French TV series Spiral (Engrenages) and that has a lot about the examining magistrate in it, so I’d be really interested to read this with Maigret harking back to an earlier time! I hadn’t realised the system had been so recently introduced, for some reason I assumed it was centuries old…

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    • I’m not sure it was introduced then – I think it did already exist. But the way Maigret was thinking about it made me feel that they had recently been given more power to tell the police how to run the investigation or something. Maigret was not happy at having to ask a young whippersnapper of an examining magistrate before he could interview suspects and suchlike – one sees his point! 😉

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