Maigret and the Tall Woman, page 1
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Maigret and the Tall Woman
Translated by DAVID WATSON
Maigret and the Tall Woman
‘I love reading Simenon. He makes me think of Chekhov’
– William Faulkner
‘A truly wonderful writer . . . marvellously readable – lucid, simple, absolutely in tune with the world he creates’
– Muriel Spark
‘Few writers have ever conveyed with such a sure touch, the bleakness of human life’
– A. N. Wilson
‘One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century . . . Simenon was unequalled at making us look inside, though the ability was masked by his brilliance at absorbing us obsessively in his stories’
‘A novelist who entered his fictional world as if he were part of it’
– Peter Ackroyd
‘The greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature’
– André Gide
‘Superb . . . The most addictive of writers . . . A unique teller of tales’
‘The mysteries of the human personality are revealed in all their disconcerting complexity’
– Anita Brookner
‘A writer who, more than any other crime novelist, combined a high literary reputation with popular appeal’
– P. D. James
‘A supreme writer . . . Unforgettable vividness’
‘Compelling, remorseless, brilliant’
– John Gray
‘Extraordinary masterpieces of the twentieth century’
– John Banville
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Georges Simenon was born on 12 February 1903 in Liège, Belgium, and died in 1989 in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he had lived for the latter part of his life. Between 1931 and 1972 he published seventy-five novels and twenty-eight short stories featuring Inspector Maigret.
Simenon always resisted identifying himself with his famous literary character, but acknowledged that they shared an important characteristic:
My motto, to the extent that I have one, has been noted often enough, and I’ve always conformed to it. It’s the one I’ve given to old Maigret, who resembles me in certain points . . . ‘understand and judge not’.
Penguin is publishing the entire series of Maigret novels.
Where Maigret meets an old acquaintance who has settled down in her own way, and the story of Sad Freddie and a possible corpse
Maigret read the docket that the office clerk had had the visitor fill out and handed to him:
Ernestine, aka ‘La Grande Perche’ (née Micou, now Jussiaume), the tall woman you arrested seventeen years ago in Rue de la Lune, and who stripped b— naked just to taunt you, requests the honour of speaking to you urgently about a matter of the utmost importance.
Maigret cast a sidelong glance at old Joseph to check whether he had read the note, but the white-haired clerk was giving nothing away. He was probably the only person in the offices of the Police Judiciaire that morning who was not in shirt-sleeves, and for the first time in all these years the inspector asked himself what bizarre regulation compelled this venerable old man to wear a heavy chain with an enormous medallion around his neck.
There are days like that, when you ask yourself silly questions. Maybe it was the late-summer heat; maybe it was the holiday atmosphere, which stopped you taking anything seriously. The windows were wide open, and the rumble of Paris vibrated in the office, where, before Joseph had turned up, Maigret had been busy following a wasp with his eyes as it flew round and round and crashed into the ceiling at exactly the same spot each time. A good half of the Police Judiciaire was at the seaside or in the country. Lucas was sporting a panama hat which, on him, looked like a native’s hut or a lampshade. The commissioner had headed off the day before to the Pyrenees, as he did every year.
‘Is she drunk?’ Maigret asked the clerk.
‘I don’t think so, sir.’
Because there are women who, after a few too many drinks, like to go and make disclosures to the police.
‘She asked if it would take long, and I replied that I wasn’t even sure if you would see her. She sat down in a corner of the waiting room and started reading the newspaper.’
Maigret couldn’t remember the name Micou, or Jussiaume, or the ‘Grande Perche’ nickname, but he had a clear recollection of Rue de la Lune on a hot day like today, when the bitumen feels soft under the soles of your shoes and Paris is impregnated with the stink of tar.
A little street down by Porte Saint-Denis, full of shady hotels and shops selling pastries and waffles. He wasn’t a detective chief inspector at the time. The women wore flapper dresses and had their hair shaved at the neck. Looking for information on the girl, he had gone into two or three of the local bars and might have drunk the odd Pernod or two. He could almost smell them again, along with the whiff of armpits and feet that pervaded the tiny hotel. The room was on the third or fourth floor. He had gone to the wrong door at first and had come face to face with a black man, sitting on his bed playing the accordion, probably a musician in a dance hall. Unperturbed, the man had indicated the room next door with a jerk of his chin.
A husky voice. The voice of someone who had drunk and smoked too much. Then, by the window looking out on the courtyard well, a tall young woman in a blue dressing gown frying a chop on a spirit stove.
She was as tall as Maigret, perhaps taller. She scrutinized him from head to toe with no flicker of emotion, then said straight away:
‘You a cop?’
He found the wallet and the banknotes on top of the mirror-fronted wardrobe, and she didn’t flinch.
‘My girlfriend did it.’
‘I don’t know her name. We call her Lulu.’
‘Where is she?’
‘Find her. That’s your job.’
‘Get dressed and come with me.’
It was a petty case of a whore stealing from a client, but at Quai des Orfèvres it was a matter of some importance, not so much because of the money involved, though it was a tidy sum, but because the victim was a major cattle dealer from Charente who had already got his parliamentary deputy involved.
‘Are you going to let me eat my chop first?’
The tiny room had only one chair in it. He remained standing while the girl ate, taking her time, paying no attention to him, as if he simply didn’t exist.
She must have been about twenty at the time. She was pale, with colourless eyes and a long, bony face. He could see her now, picking her teeth with a matchstick and pouring boiling water into her coffee-pot.
‘I asked you to get dressed.’
It was hot, and the smell of the hotel was bothering him. Had she sensed his unease?
Calmly, she took off her dressing gown, her slip and her underwear and, naked as the day she was born, stretched out on the bed and lit a cigarette.
‘I’m waiting!’ he said impatiently, forcing himself to look the other way.
‘I have an arrest warrant.’
‘So arrest me, then.’
‘Get dressed and come with me.’
‘I’m fine as I am.’<
It was a ridiculous situation. She was calm, passive, with just a glint of irony in those colourless eyes.
‘You said you were arresting me. That’s fine by me. But don’t ask me to give you a hand. This is my place. I’m hot and I’m allowed to be naked if I want. So if you insist that I come with you just as I am, I have no problem with that.’
He repeated himself at least ten times:
And perhaps because of the paleness of her skin, perhaps because of the squalid décor, he thought that he had never seen a woman quite as naked as she was. He tried throwing her clothes on the bed, threatening her, then persuading her, all to no avail.
In the end he went downstairs to summon a couple of police officers, and the scene descended into farce. They had to forcibly wrap the girl up in a blanket and carry her, like a parcel, down the narrow stairs, while all the doors opened as they went past.
He had never seen her again after that. He had never even heard her mentioned.
‘Send her in,’ he sighed.
He recognized her straight away. She didn’t seem to have changed at all. The same long, pale face, the washed-out eyes, the wide, heavily lipsticked mouth that looked like an open wound. And in her expression he could see the cool irony of those who have seen so much that nothing seems terribly important to them any more. She was wearing a respectable dress, a light-green straw hat and a pair of gloves.
‘Are you still annoyed with me?’
He sucked on his pipe and didn’t reply.
‘Can I sit down? I knew that you’d been promoted, which is why our paths never crossed again. Am I allowed to smoke?’
She took a cigarette from her bag and lit it.
‘No hard feelings, but let me tell you straight away that back then I was in the right. I got sent down for a year, which I didn’t deserve. There really was a Lulu, who you didn’t bother to look for. We were together when we met that fat moneybags. He chose the both of us, but once he’d had a good look at me he told me to clear off because he didn’t like skinny girls. I waited in the corridor, and then, an hour later, Lulu slipped me his wallet to stash away.’
‘What happened to her?’
‘She opened a small restaurant in the Midi about five years ago. I just wanted to show you that everyone makes mistakes now and then.’
‘Is that why you came?’
‘No. I came to tell you about Alfred. If he knew I was here he’d think I’m crazy. I could have gone to see Inspector Boissier, who knows him well.’
‘Who is Alfred?’
‘My husband. He really is my husband – we got married at the registry office and in church too, because he’s still religious. Inspector Boissier arrested him a couple of times. One time, he got five years in Fresnes.’
Her voice sounded almost rasping.
‘The name Jussiaume maybe won’t mean anything to you, but his nickname will ring a bell. It’s often been mentioned in the papers. He’s Sad Freddie.’
‘Have you had a fight?’
‘No. I’m not here for the reason you think. It’s not my style. So, you know who Alfred is now?’
Maigret had never seen him; more precisely, had only ever caught sight of him in the corridor when the burglar was waiting to be questioned by Boissier. He vaguely recalled a puny little man with darting eyes, wearing clothes that seemed two sizes too big for his scrawny body.
‘Of course, we don’t have the same opinion of him,’ she said. ‘He’s not got a lot going for him, but he’s more interesting than you imagine. I’ve been living with him for twelve years now and I’m starting to get to know him better.’
‘Where is he?’
‘I’m getting there, don’t worry. I don’t know where he is, but he’s managed to get himself into a right old mess, and that’s why I’m here. I need you to trust me, and I realize that’s asking a lot.’
He looked at her curiously; her plain speaking was somehow appealing. She wasn’t putting it on, wasn’t trying to impress him. She might have been struggling to get to the point, but that was because what she had to say was genuinely complicated.
Nevertheless, there was a major barrier between them, and it was this barrier she was trying to break down, so that he didn’t get the wrong idea.
Maigret had had very little to do with Sad Freddie personally and so knew no more about him than what he had heard around the office. He was something of a celebrity and had been rather romanticized by the newspapers because of his colourful exploits.
He had worked for the safe-makers Planchart for many years and was one of their top experts. Even then he was a sad, dour character; his health was poor and he suffered periodic fits of epilepsy.
Boissier would probably be able to fill Maigret in on the circumstances of his leaving Planchart.
Whatever had happened, instead of installing safes, he had turned to breaking into them.
‘Was he still in full-time employment when you met him?’
‘Certainly not. It wasn’t me that led him astray, if that’s what you’re thinking. He did odd jobs, sometimes a bit of work for a locksmith, but I quickly cottoned on to what he was really up to.’
‘Are you sure you wouldn’t rather talk to Boissier?’
‘He takes care of burglaries, doesn’t he? You’re the one in charge of murders.’
‘Has Alfred killed someone?’
‘Listen, inspector, I think we’ll get there quicker if you just let me talk. Call Alfred what you like, but he wouldn’t kill anyone for all the gold in the world. It may seem stupid to say this about a man like him, but he is a sensitive type who can cry at the drop of a hat. I should know. Some would say that he is soft. Maybe that’s the reason why I fell in love with him.’
She looked at him calmly. She had said these last words without emphasis, but with a certain pride in her voice.
‘If you knew everything that went on in his head you’d be amazed. But no matter. As far as you’re concerned he’s just a thief. He’s been caught before and spent five years inside. I didn’t miss a single visiting day and the whole time he was locked up I had to take up my old profession, at the risk of getting into trouble, because I wasn’t registered, and you still needed to be on the books to work on the street in those days.
‘He keeps hoping he’ll pull off one big job, then we can go and live in the country. It’s been his dream since he was little.’
‘Where do you live?’
‘Quai de Jemmapes, just opposite the Saint-Martin Lock. We have two rooms above a bar painted green. It’s quite handy because of the telephone.’
‘Is Alfred there right now?’
‘No. I’ve already told you I don’t know where he is. You just have to believe me. He pulled a job, not last night but the night before.’
‘And he’s run away?’
‘Bear with me, inspector. You’ll understand soon enough why what I have to tell you is important. You know those people who buy a lottery ticket for every draw, don’t you? Some of them go without food in order to buy the ticket, in the belief that in a few days’ time they’ll be rich. Well, Alfred is like that. There are dozens of safes in Paris that he installed and knows like the back of his hand. Usually people buy safes to lock away money and jewellery.’
‘He hopes he will hit the jackpot?’
She shrugged her shoulders, as if she were talking about some innocent childhood enthusiasm. Then she added:
‘He’s had no luck. Mostly he’s found title deeds that are impossible to sell or business documents. One time he did find a large sum of money, large enough to allow him to live in peace for the rest of his days, but that time Boissier arrested him.’
‘Were you with him? Do you act as his lookout?’
‘No. He didn’t want that. In the beginning he’d tell me where he was doing the job, and I’d arrange it so that I was in the vici
‘He’s worried you might be caught?’
‘Maybe. But probably for superstitious reasons as well. You see, even though we live together, he’s essentially a lone wolf; he can go two days without saying a single word. When I see him go out in the evening with his bicycle, I know what he’s up to.’
That was a detail that had stuck in Maigret’s mind. Some newspapers had dubbed Alfred Jussiaume the ‘burglar with the bike’.
‘He has this idea that a man riding a bicycle at night will be inconspicuous, especially if he has a toolbox over his shoulder. People will think that he’s on his way to work. You see that I’m talking to you as a friend here.’
Maigret again wondered what she had come to his office for. When she took out another cigarette, he offered her a light.
‘Today’s Thursday. The night of Tuesday to Wednesday, Alfred went out on a job.’
‘Did he tell you what he was doing?’
‘He’s been going out at the same time for a few nights. That’s usually a give-away. Before breaking into a house or an office, he sometimes spends a week watching the premises to get to know the habits of the people there.’
‘And to make sure no one will be around?’
‘No. That doesn’t bother him. I think he even prefers to work when someone is about rather than when the place is empty. He can move around without making a sound. Loads of times he’s slipped into bed next to me at night and I hadn’t even noticed he’d come home.’
‘Do you know where he was working the night before last?’
‘I just know that it was somewhere in Neuilly. And I only discovered that by accident. The day before, when he got home, he told me that the police had asked to see his papers; they must have thought he was up to no good, because they stopped him at the Bois de Boulogne, near the spot where women go to pick up trade.
‘“Where was that?” I asked him.
‘“Behind the Botanical Garden. I was on my way back from Neuilly.”
‘So the night before last, when he went off with his tools, I realized that he was off on a job.’
Other author's books:
- Maigret Defends HimselfThe Snow Was DirtyThe Krull HouseMaigret's PickpocketMaigret and the Saturday CallerMaigret and the TrampMaigret's AngerMaigret and the Ghost
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