Belgian writer Georges Simenon penned two types of tales: detective stories featuring police inspector Maigret, and "hard" novels, as Simenon called them, which were less formulaic, such as the grimly existentialist Dirty Snow. There is crossover among these genre types, however. Snow is an oddly inverted form of police procedural, written from the point of view of the criminal, where the "police" comprise a shadowy network of regular cops, military cops, and Occupation cops, all engaged in a bureaucratic warfare of "sections" (as one criminal advises another: "they have several sections, and no matter how good you're in with one, you shouldn't mess with the other one"). Neither the criminal protagonist nor the reader comes close to grasping this power structure, a state of fearful confusion that presumably mirrored the uncertainties of Simenon's life as an author in Vichy France. A slow process of good cop/bad cop interrogation (intentional or just inept? we're never sure) and stalker-like research into the criminal's pre-incarceration activities (what you might expect from a secret police, however sectionalized) gradually turns the wrongdoer's mind inside out and upside down, triggering a defiant ... well, read the book.
My favorite so far of the Maigret novels explores the vanished "barge culture" of the French canal system in the early 1930s, with an attention to politics and class nuance that elevates it above a mere thriller. This was published under several titles, the worst of which, Maigret Meets a Milord (uggh), is the one under which it was reviewed (excellently) by "darragh o'donoghue" in 2002, on on the website of God Emperor Bezos:
This title is an English invention, unhappily signaling a facetiousness absent from a sombre Simenon story about double murder, decadence, broken lives and betrayal. A literal translation from the French is The Carter of the 'Providence', but perhaps that was seen as too leading, even if it was Simenon's choice; another alternative, The Crime At Lock 14, is the most satisfying, centering on the important aspect of the novel: place. Milord is set in that strange, marginal, now obsolete inter-war world of canal barges, perhaps most familiar from contemporary films of the period, such as Boudu Saved From Drowning or L'Atalante. Indeed, the star of those films, Michel Simon, would have been an obvious choice to play the main non-Maigret character in any film of this book, the carter Jean, a taciturn giant whose face and tattooed body are buried in a mass of hirsute overgrowth, a man who sleeps in dumb animal warmth with his horses in the barge stable, and into whose eyes Maigret can't decide whether to read imbecility or the keenest intelligence.
A beautiful, rich, well-dressed woman is found strangled between two sleeping carters in the tavern stable at Dizy, Lock 14. She is the wife of an elderly English aristocrat, disgraced Colonel Lampson, who is sailing along the canal tributary of the Marne on his luxury yacht The Southern Cross with his sleazy but charming companion Willy Marco, and his fat Chilean mistress. Despite his bearing and stiff-upper-lip, the Colonel conducts regular drunken orgies on board his yacht, and tolerated his wife's affair with Marco. The other principal boat in the story is the huge barge The Providence, run by a small, timid skipper, his garrulous, kindly wife and the carter Jean.
Simenon characterises barge-life as a kind of shadow-world adjacent to, but unknown to, normal life around it, with its own codes, customs and language. Although these are floating homes, not tied to any one place and potentially unstable, their slow, regular movements up and down the river, and the rules they must abide by are as rigid, claustrophobic and monotonous as any settler's. But Simenon brilliantly captures the sense of a shifting communal life, competitive (the dense traffic on a small stretch of water means much jostling for pole position), but full of cameraderie and good humour, helping out friends in trouble, carrying messages from relatives, tipping canal-side officials.
For a rooted outsider like Maigret, this world seems enchanted, his inability to crack the case matched by a terrible sense of suspension hanging over the twilit realm -- it is only by breaking out of it, asserting his mobility by bicycle, that he can regain his detective prowess. Before that, he learns many fascinating facts about the mechanics of barge life, as well as its drabness and colour, its hierarchies of boats and petty bendings of the law, the land men, women and buildings who service it (lock-keepers, tavern- and shop-owners); a group world of work and routine in which transgressive individual desire can have the direst consequences.
The way Simenon himself, like a narrative elastic band, suspends the tension, allowing us to soak in the character and atmosphere, before accelerating the suspense and action, is so gripping, this must count as an exceptional early Maigret.
The version I read was a recent Penguin reprint under the title The Carter of La Providence. The translation by David Coward uses some modern idioms but seems very attuned to Simenon's sense of humor. Highly recommended.