Saturday, February 28, 2015

Into the Woods

Today is the final day for European Parliaments—including Greece’s—to approve the four-month extension deal (deferring predicted financial Armageddon) entered into between Greece and the Eurogroup.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about don’t worry.  No one does. 

You see, even the Greek party in power responsible for negotiating the deal is having trouble explaining what’s going on to its own party members.  So much so, that a day ago Greece’s Prime Minister wasn’t sure he had enough votes in his parliamentary coalition to agree to the lifeline deal, leading him to say that he might decide not to submit it to Parliament at all.  

And protestors are back on Athens streets tossing Molotov cocktails, burning cars, and shattering shop windows.

As for what the deal actually meant, well, Greece’s tieless Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, called it a deliberately vaguely worded “fig leaf” document designed to give cover to European parliaments so they could approve an agreement actually “dispensing with Greece’s bailout deal”—something the member countries said they would not do.  He also said Greece’s “coffers are empty,” and that the folks now wearing the fig leaf should turn over the money Greece needs to help with its “relatively small cash problem.”

Like I said, who knows?

Frankly, I see two ways of enduring all this while preserving sanity.  

Option #1.  Keep a sense of humor…something American television and German television have found fit to do by poking fun at Minister Varoufakis.

John Oliver from HBO's "Last Week Tonight."

Germany's ZDF "Neo Magazin Royale."

Option #2:  Take off into the woods until things sort themselves out…hopefully by the Spring thaw. I’ve opted for option #2, as I don’t see what’s happening in Greece as much given to humor at the moment.  

All I can say is, things might look bleak but the sun will shine again.

And once again, thank you Barbara Zilly for the photos.


Friday, February 27, 2015

The Story Of Mikaeel Kular

A happy wee boy, always smiling

At about 9pm on Wednesday January 15th last year, a three year old boy, Mikaeel Kular was last seen in the house he shared with his mother and four siblings in Edinburgh. He was going to his bed dressed in his PJ’s. 


By 7.15 the next morning the temperature had dropped to 2.3 degrees outside. Rosdeep Kular, the boy’s mother, made the terrible discovery that he was missing from his bed. She found a stool pulled over to the front door and deduced that he had climbed up to reach the lock to get out.

Two hours later a massive police search was under way. Neighbours heard about Mikaeel and came out to help. A helicopter was scrambled as the  police released a picture of the boy with a description of what he might be wearing. It touches the heart, an innocent faced Asian featured boy, with a big smile. He is said to be wearing a beige hooded jacket, brown shoes and blue joggers over his pyjamas. 

This picture makes every TV news, the late editions of the papers carry it on their front page.  People talk, as people do. The Mum’s marriage was in trouble. Maybe the Dad had taken the boy? How many three year olds can dress themselves? Do their own shoes up? How many are strong enough to open the heavy fireproof front doors on a modern house?


An hour after that image is released, the police make a  statement that  there is no suspicion of foul play but they are keeping an open mind. The mother is said to be distraught. Neighbours of the family are asked to search huts and garages, just in case Mikaeel has taken shelter from the weather and got locked in.


That afternoon  coastguard and lifeboats search the coast. A Child Rescue Alert is initiated so all police forces in the UK are now involved. This allows TV and radio programmes to be interrupted with news flashes. Statements are made in parliament, hoping for a safe return of the child. The police refuse to comment on ‘local intelligence’ that there was a custody issue about the boy.


As darkness falls again,  more neighbours, the entire community, all emergency services are out looking for the boy as the temperature drops well below freezing. It is now a matter of extreme concern. The search goes on all night.
By nine the next morning, the police issue an  updated image, showing  what he was wearing when he disappeared.

 By first light the public, the police and all support services, police dogs, horses are all out searching. Family dogs are asked to help. There are over 150 calls to the helpline but no confirmed sightings. By mid morning, one hundred people are organised into a specific search. Mikaeel's image is prepared to go on billboards and train stations across the country. Meanwhile on Cramond Shore more volunteers, firemen and mothers with prams search the sand and rocks.

 By late afternoon the  Assistant Chief Constable  announces that they are  now exploring a theory that Mikaeel might have left the flat of his own free will after he became the subject  of a criminal act. And the general public were left to fill in the blanks.

By tea time it became known that all  family members had been traced and talked to. Mikaeel’s timeline was established. It showed that he hadn’t been to nursery since before Christmas because he had been ill. It was now January 17th. A  forensic team was seen entering the boy’s house that night.
Later that night the police thank everybody who has helped in the searches but say they will continue on their own. There is a sense that the investigation is now targeted and that there will be more announcements.

 Just after midnight, on the morning of Saturday 18th January 2014, the police announce that they have found a body that  maybe Mikaeel’s over 25 miles away in Kirkcaldy, fife. The  family have been informed and somebody has been detained in connection with the incident.

That person was the boy’s mother, Rosdeep.

 People are upset, flowers and toys are left outside his house and the property in Kirkcaldy. There is a genuine sense of shock. Even for those of us who didn’t really believe the first version of events.
 By four o’clock that afternoon,  a small body is removed from woodland behind a house in Kirkcaldy. The house is owned by Rosdeep’s sister and Risdee and her five children lived there until 18 months before. One hour later, the police are granted another twelve hours to keep Rosdeep in custody.

At seven that night a candle light service is held for the boy, everybody attending holds  a candle high in his memory. Four hours later, the body is officially confirmed as  Mikaeel and his  33 year old mother is arrested and charged in connection  with his disappearance. Later she is charged with his murder.
His aunt Pandeep, Rosdeep's sister, was 'devastated' by her nephew's death as the  forensic search of the wood behind her house continued. 

Two things emerged from the community involvement– a sense that they had come together. And a sense that their kindness had been abused.

Rosdeep Adekoya was  sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment after she admitted killing the boy, wrapping him in a duvet, hiding his body in a suitcase and driving him 25 miles to dispose of the body in woodland she knew well – behind her sister’s house.  In the three days prior to his death, he had received injuries bad enough to  severely damage his internal  organs.
He had passed away on the evening of 14 January,  probably from injuries inflicted the previous Sunday. The boy had been sick in a restaurant so she had beaten him with her fist, striking him about the body. He was then beaten while laid over the edge of the bath. She couldn’t take him to a doctor because of the bruising and his  condition worsened. She found his body on the Tuesday morning, but  had the sense of mind to drive his two sisters to nursery before  driving his body to Fife.
The pathologist found forty separate injuries to his body.
The judge said her actions were  "cruel and inexcusable".

So as crime writers we have gave to ask the question. Why?


Rosdeep’s remorse  is ‘genuine and heartfelt" She was an intelligent, articulate  woman with no history of violence to any of her children. She was in tears all the way through her sentencing appearance. In the end, unable to cope with the pressure, she  told the police where to go and get his body.

She is a complex lady. Her parents were doctors, her Dad died relatively young.  Her mother remarried another doctor. The family are wealthy members of the Asian community. Her five children have complicated parentage. She used to be very overweight, she got a gastric band  and reinvented herself as a slim, chick about town. Before that there was a history of depression and, at least one suicide attempt.  On social media sites she asked questions about why she loved all her children except one. Why was she so aggressive with only one of her children. And how do you get rid of bruises.

Mikaeel's father, who had already another partner and had other children by the time Mikaeel was killed, says that Rosdeep, Rosie as he called her, never got over their break up and resented the child because he looked so much like his father. That relationship was disapproved of by her family.
Rosie, the ‘dancing queen’ became a social butterfly after her marriage broke down and it seems to me, she began to live  life the way teenagers do.  She hung about night clubs with  friends of dubious character. Despite having five kids under the age of ten she set up her own  beauty business  then continued with her love of partying.  Her facebook  page was full of photos of her enjoying the night life. Including one friend who later died in a shooting incident.

The parents of her  estranged husband always had reservations about her party lifestyle.  Her husband tried to curb her behaviour, she objected so he left and believed that Rosie had moved on to another partner.

He divorced her on Christmas day 2014.

It seems a sad tale for all involved.  Little Mikaeel paid with his life. A father has lost his son. His siblings will grow up knowing that their mother killed their brother.  But you can’t help thinking that somewhere in there was a woman crying for help, or trying to be somebody she wasn’t. Trying to live a life that she thought she should have had.

Like I say, sad all round.

Caro Ramsay Scotland 27/02/2015

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Naked Cook

I am arguably the world’s worst cook, so I avoid it as much as possible.  I do, however, love to eat good food, and I suppose I always thought that the purpose of cooking was to turn tasteless and chewy raw ingredients into something delicious.  To the extent that I thought about it at all, I assumed that cooking was something that developed somewhere in our evolutionary past when one of our distant ancestors dropped a chuck of raw meat into the fire and it took him a while to fish it out.  I visualized a Neanderthal or the like doing this.  

Maybe this just displays my general ignorance.  Recently, on a long plane trip, I read a book that had a very different interpretation of events and one I found fascinating.  It’s an African story; wherever this happened, it was somewhere in Africa. And with the Cradle of Humankind up the road from where I live, it might have been quite close by.

The book is CATCHING FIRE: How cooking made us human by Richard Wrangham. The author is the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard and an expert on Chimpanzees on the side. This guy knows his stuff. It is sometimes said that we are what we eat. The thesis of this book is that it’s not what we ate that mattered, but that we cooked it first.

Professor Wrangham and friends
Compare the teeth!
The book starts out gently explaining that raw food is great except that it takes a long time to chew up and a lot of energy to digest.  Much of the food value is wasted. What you need is big, strong teeth, heavy jaw muscles, and plenty of lower intestine.  My neighbors up the road here had all that. They were much smaller than humans but had bigger teeth.  I did know that.  I suppose I just thought that our smaller teeth resulted from our larger overall size and changed diet.  Well, right.  Professor Wrangham points out that it's diet that drives evolution, never the other way around.  It was when our ancestors started cooking their food that two things happened, probably over quite a short space of time in evolutionary terms.  The one was that they were now getting much more nutrition from the same amount of food. That’s because breaking down the cellular structure with heat makes the nutrients more easily accessible. The other was that we could eat more quickly. The food was softer, less chewing was required, and less digestion.  Over time our teeth changed to reflect that situation and our guts changed appropriately too.

Australopithecus Sediba
The archaeological record shows that humans controlled fire about half a million years ago and maybe much earlier. At Swartkrans in South Africa and at locations in Kenya, there are sites dating back one and a half million years with suggestions of fire use. This physical evidence is disputed so Wrangham turns to biology instead, seeking the change in anatomy that would link with the cooked food.  

Over the last two million years, there were only three periods when our ancestors’ evolution was fast and strong enough to justify a change in species names.  The crucial one occurred some 1.8 million years ago when Homo erectus emerged from the australopithecines.  ‘Suddenly’ we had a much larger creature, one that walked and ran and was probably not well suited to climbing, had smaller teeth, and probably differently structured guts.  It had to be fire that allowed the erectus part.  The African savanna was not a safe place to be on the ground at night with saber tooth cats all over the place.  The australopithecines were probably excellent climbers and slept in trees as all modern apes do.  But if you were cooking around a cheerful bonfire, sleeping around it – presumably with a watchman to keep the fire fed – would be safe and comfortable.  So the implication is that it was the possession of fire and the rudimentary art of cooking that drove the development of Homo.
Skull of Homo Erectus
That in itself is a pretty intriguing idea.  But there’s more.  If we were happily eating roasted meat and broiled vegetables all that time ago, why did our brain size develop?  It turns out that the development of brain tissue is very expensive in terms of energy demands. Wrangham believes that what we think of as intelligence was needed for social interaction rather than for food gathering.  It was the excess of nutrition from the cooked food that allowed the extra resources to feed and develop our brains. Thus it was cooking that led to our intelligence, rather than the other way around.  

Wrangham has one final twist. He observes that universally in hunter-gatherer communities, the women do the cooking. (The exceptions are a few instances when men do some culturally significant form of cooking and he dismisses those.) Men do the hunting – or whatever else they want to do – and leave the vital cooking task to the women.  In a few societies, it's much more significant for a woman to feed a man than to have sex with him.  If she gives him dinner, they're married.

Wrangham toys with the idea that as cooking developed, females could be set upon and have their food stolen, so they made alliances with males, not for sex and procreation as is the conventional wisdom – generally apes don't do that - but for shared food and resources and for defense against food thieves.  So much for ‘family values!’  It’s all about food!  Wrangham obviously feels very uncomfortable that this prehistoric motivation has settled into modern times as an excuse give women a subservient role.  He concludes this chapter with:

 “The idea that cooking led to our pair-bonds suggests a worldwide irony. Cooking brought huge nutritional benefits. But for women, the adoption of cooking also led to a major increase in their vulnerability to male authority. Men were the greater beneficiaries. Cooking freed women’s time and fed their children, but it also trapped women into a newly subservient role enforced by a male dominated culture. Cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority. It is not a pretty picture.

Michael - Thursday

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Spare some words?

Puerto Vallarta cat has the right idea...

For a writer, I often find myself at a loss for words.

Maybe I only get a certain quota, and once I've used them up, I have to wait for the next shipment to come in. Given that I'd been on somewhat of a tear working on my WIP for the last three months, I've probably been operating on a word deficit. I'd reached that point on a project where the end was not exactly in sight but coming into view, where I'm so intent on seeing it that it's like I'm in this weird tunnel, where everything around me is slightly out of focus and not nearly as important as that place I'm trying to get to.

Then I get there and realize that three months of junk mail and catalogs and magazines and receipts and all other manner of chaos is what I haven't been seeing as I tunneled my way through to the end.

Where I arrived on Saturday.

"You're not paying enough attention to me. Where are your priorities??"

I finally got to type "END" on my latest book (my fifth since I started publishing), and since I'm a "slow drafter, polish as I go" sort of writer, it feels reasonably complete (we'll see what an editor has to say, of course). This was a weird project for me for a few reasons. It's the sequel to my second book, "Getaway," a book I never thought I'd be writing a sequel to in a million years. For one thing, "Getaway," being a second book, was cursed with full-blown Second Book Syndrome. Second Book Syndrome is real, gang. Ask any novelist. And it's deadly.

Okay, it's not literally deadly, but the feeling of suddenly having to produce a book when others have expectations of you, for the first time, is very disconcerting and not very much fun. You're constantly second-guessing yourself—well, actually, that's every book, not just second ones, but it's worse with second ones because you feel like you suddenly have a lot more to lose, and coping with that feeling is a learned skill.

Anyway. "Getaway" wasn't very much fun to write. But that's another thing I've learned, five books into my so-called career—how I feel about what I'm writing while I'm writing it, how hard it is to pull it off, those feelings have very little relation to how the book comes out at the end of the ordeal struggle process. For example, the third Ellie book, "Dragon Day," was really a miserable book to write. There were so many things going on in my life that made it tough, I didn't have the prep time I usually take to write a novel, I had to make all kinds of tough decisions about what to do with this character in a book that may not end the series but does wrap off a number of threads that run through the trilogy, and…it was hard. By contrast, the second Ellie book, "Hour of the Rat," was a blast to write, probably one of the more enjoyable creative experiences I've ever had. Is #2 a better book than #3? Objectively, I don't think so. #3 might be the better book, actually.

Coming soon to a bookstore near you...

It's not that you don't learn things as you continue to write books—you do. But every book is different, and though you may have learned some new chords and gained some chops from all your prior experience and practice, it's not the same song. You still have to learn what the new book is trying to teach you.

"Go-Between," the "Getaway" sequel, was a fun book to write. I really enjoyed taking a character who in her first appearance was kind of a wreck, rather naive and totally in over her head, and showing who and where she is after that experience (POTENTIAL SPOILER: You really don't want to mess with Michelle). For me, part of the fun in writing a series is precisely that: showing how the experiences your characters have change them. I was also able to dig into an issue that fascinates and appalls me: the American prison/industrial complex. The US currently has a total inmate population of 2.3 million people, which in terms of both the number of prisoners and as a percentage of the population, is the biggest in the world. We’re 5 percent of the world’s population, and we have 25 percent of the world’s prison population. 

That’s right—we’re number one.

The challenge is to deal with these kinds of themes in ways that aren't didactic, that are an integral part of the story, a part of its bones. It was fun to do.

Okay, it's possible that I have a strange idea of "fun." But I do think dealing with social issues and ideas of justice are things that crime novels do very well--a part of the genre's bones--and a part of what keeps me coming back to writing, and reading them.

I guess it's appropriate that I wrote some of "Go-Between's" final scenes in Puerto Vallarta, where "Getaway" took place ("Go-Between" is set almost entirely in the US, with one scene in another country). I really like Puerto Vallarta. It's a very interesting city, it's beautiful—


—and I have an amazing circle of friends there who are doing all kinds of creative, interesting things. My one regret with "Getaway" is when I read comments from readers who really liked the book but after reading it have decided that they never want to go to Mexico. Readers, don't let my book keep you from visiting one of the most wonderful countries in the world! I can almost guarantee that you will not find yourself trapped in a bizarre scheme involving possible CIA black ops and drug cartels. Instead you will most likely find yourself doing this:

—in a place that looks like this:

"Go-Between" takes place almost entirely in the United States, and all kinds of scary things happen, but I doubt that anything I wrote would keep people away from Houston, Arcata, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, right?

What could possibly be scary about this place?

I read recently that one of the biggest regrets that older people have is that they didn't travel enough while they were physically able to. We're all constrained by our circumstances, but what I hope is to never be constrained by my fears.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

It's Inspector Maigret's world, we just 'live' here.

Paris, the City of Light: for crime fiction readers, the image conjured has traditionally been one of a brightly lit Eiffel Tower, the gurgling Seine against a backdrop of gray, overcast sky, and perhaps a corpse or two in the cobbled streets — discovered, of course, by Georges Simenon’s pipe-smoking Inspector Jules Maigret. 

 I fell in love with Paris — or the idea of Paris, anyway — because of my father, whose slender Inspector Maigret novels always intrigued me. My first visit to the city sparked the realization that Paris was everything I’d been promised, and more. It was a love affair in overdrive. I couldn’t learn enough about the city of light, and its darker secrets. Blame it on Inspector Maigret.

Though Maigret's era passed long ago, it's not all history. His “old office” at 36 Quai des Orfévres, the Paris Prefecture (often referred to as “36”), belongs to a trim forty-something Commissaire with a laptop; gone is the charcoal-burning stove. Maigret’s Sûreté is no more, but has been restructured and renamed the Brigade Criminelle, Paris’s elite homicide squad. From time immemorial, officers have hung bloody clothing from crime scenes to dry under the rafters in the attic. This tradition hasn’t changed. Nor has the rooftop view, courteously shown to me by a member of the Brigade Criminelle, a vista with the Seine and all of Paris before us. And beneath us are 36’s underground holding cells, which date from the Revolution, if not further back, as a policewoman friend told me. 

The juxtaposition of light and dark is a vital part of the noir ambiance that drives me to explore the dark corners of Paris, where no one else is looking. 

That's my job, to write stories about crime and murder à la parisienne, set in contemporary Paris. The streets are the same as they were in Maigret’s time, but today’s Fifth Republic Paris is a blended wealth of cultural traditions from all over the world. For me, this means there are new enclaves and hidden worlds to encounter no matter how well I think I know these cobbled streets. 

To know Paris, as Baudelaire, Edmund White and countless others have observed, one must be a flâneur, taking strolls through the city, letting the unexpected moods wash over you and remaining open to discovery — in my case, with an eye for crime. One must take the pulse of a quartier, assessing its rhythm; know it by heart, from the lime trees flanking its boulevards to its 19th-century passages couverts. Only when I can feel that pulse can I start the rest of my research for a novel.  

A writer, like a detective, must follow her nose, as the old adage goes; when a word rings false, when the indefinable something-isn’t-right moment happens—that is the moment to wonder, to ask questions. The exchange of a furtive glance, a figure ducking out of sight into the back of a café and failing to reemerge. In Paris, those who want to disappear could do so via the spare exit gate of a back courtyard, into the city’s series of covered passageways, even over the gray zinc rooftops or underground through a cellar or an old WWII bomb shelter. All a writer needs is that “what if,” and a story tumbles out. I imagine the line at the tabac by Pigalle Métro station evaporating, the group of teens breaking off into threes to pickpocket unsuspecting tourists; an artist in a tiny fifth-floor den closing her shutters to block out street noise; a man nonchalantly entering a jewelry store in the “golden triangle” off the Champs-Élysées with a gun to perform one in a series of daytime robberies.

How I long to get it right, to reflect the Paris of the 1990s with its hidden courtyards and criminal underbelly — the Paris Inspector Maigret haunted. In order to do this, it’s important to go out drinking with flics, the local cops. Lucky enough to receive such an invitation one night, I joined several at the bar across the Seine from 36, where they’d taken over a back table.

An intoxicated young man looking for a fight entered the bar and approached us at our table—a table of off-duty police officers. Who knows why? Bad luck, I suppose. He began a drunken monologue . . . if you’ve had such an encounter, you know the kind. This young man was the kind you wished would leave before he got belligerent. A few of the officers spoke with him and escorted him out. He sat down on the pavement outside, and one of the admin police, who resembled an accountant, stayed behind to join him on the curb across from la maison, as the Prefecture is called. This policeman spoke with him for a long time amid the smokers and passersby, talking him down rather than talking down to him. I’d gone outside for a cigarette and noticed them carrying on a conversation. I didn’t get involved, as I didn’t have anything to add, nor did I wish to accidentally provoke someone so inebriated. When I came out again later, they were still talking. The flic was kindly asking questions now. Maybe the kid had broken up with his girlfriend, lost his job or just had a really bad day. I never found out.

It was something the flic didn’t have to do, with all his buddies inside drinking. Whether he enjoyed getting out of the bar, or the view of the Seine, or just talking with this kid, it really struck me as something Jules Maigret would have done. Maigret, the knowing, sometimes fatherly figure who knew people would tell you their story if you just coaxed it out of them. Averting disaster, heading off a confrontation, recognizing the signs that a situation could spin out of control — maybe that was part of what they taught at the police academy. By the time the young man (who was still, in my opinion, one slice short of a baguette, sobriety-wise) finally left, he had a smile on his face. I’ll never know what exactly happened to him after that, but I had the feeling he would just go home and sleep it off. He wouldn’t feel denigrated or demoralized in the morning, except for a hangover.

Georges Simenon kept his storylines simple, often using no more than a 2,000 word vocabulary and economical descriptions, keeping his stories brief to appeal to a broader audience. But deeper themes and insights into human psychology lie at the core of his characters. No penny dreadful, each Maigret novel is a quick read but makes a major impact. You can pick one up, read it and walk away with a deeper understanding of the human psyche. His characters, from the crew at the Prefecture, investigators, and flics on their daily beat, to the victims’ neighbors, hotel concierges, and even Paris itself, really speaks to readers.
With countless television adaptions of Simenon’s work in the UK, France and other parts of Europe, everyone knows of the pipe-smoking Maigret. These novels capture a time, a part of Paris that exists now only in the imagination. It was a time when cell phones and numeric entry keypads were unheard of — one could only ring the concierge’s bell to gain entry after midnight.
Everyone knew everyone else’s business in a city with enclosed courtyards, high walls and watchful eyes. Parisians smoked and drank morning, noon and night. Men’s wool overcoats and hats steamed as they came in from a wet winter evening to a warm, charcoal-stove-burning café. People knew their neighbors. Snitches snitched. Girlfriends chatted with each other and mother-in-laws complained — human connections abound, often forming a web of lies and deceit. But Maigret keeps at it — plodding, questioning, then throwing out those questions, lighting his pipe when it goes out, and the suspect in the chair opposite him knows it’s only a matter of time.
As does Maigret. He drinks at lunch, sometimes he gets angry, even orders sandwiches and beer in the afternoon. He takes the annual August vacances with Madame Maigret unless a case comes up—but when doesn’t it?—and detains him in hot, deserted Paris. But a few of his investigations find him out in the countryside, in those small, hermetically sealed villages where observant eyes don’t miss a thing. 

That hasn’t changed. Even though I’ve made regular visits to the same village in southern France for over twenty years, I’m still l’Américaine. I’ve been guest at several of the locals’ weddings, heard about their husbands’ affairs . . . I’d like to think they trust me now. After all, I’ve been into their homes, which is considered an honor and no mean feat, but in many ways I’m still the outsider.
Georges Simenon, originally from Belgium, arrived in Paris as an outsider too. He wrote a wealth of books apart from the Maigret series, many of which have been and continue to be the inspiration for films that play in the city’s theaters.

I confess that when I first began writing my Aimée Leduc novels, I would think, Okay. There’s a murder, a staircase dripping with blood . . . what would Inspector Maigret do? That wasn’t always much help, since Aimée is a PI, not a policewoman. But then I’d consider what she might do if Maigret appeared on the scene and questioned her after she had found the body. That worked a little better. Of course, the police system in place now is different: Jules Maigret, as the head Commissaire, would certainly not respond in person. Today, it would be the Brigade Criminelle and le procureur (the equivalent of our DA) who would hotfoot it to the scene and dictate the next steps in the investigation. I had to change my way of thinking about police process in a murder investigation, my flic friends told me. The way Maigret operated didn’t make for a plausible scenario now. So I relearned in order to keep the details in my books accurate, and came to the conclusion that Maigret had it easier than a head Commissaire would today.

In Maigret’s world, there are confessions. There is order.

Is Simenon’s work dated? Historical? Timeless? I’d argue the second two. I personally like my Paris streets dark and narrow, with glistening cobblestones. The air thick with mist and suspicion. The Montmartre cemetery wall, the same as it was then, hulking with old, lichen-covered stone. I’ve imagined a corpse there more than once. My friend lives a block away, and returning late at night from the last Métro, walking uphill from Place de Clichy, the cinéma marquees dark, the café lights fading as I cross over the cemetery, I hear the thrum of the old Citroën or Renault engine, the shift of gears and smell the cherry tobacco (I like to think he smoked cherry tobacco, though I don’t know that it’s ever specified; perhaps there’s a Simenon scholar out there who can tell me.). Flashlights illuminate the corpse sprawled on the damp pavement. Maigret nods to his lieutenant with a, “Take this down,” and we’re off on an investigation. An investigation that leads to the hidden life behind the walls, intrigue in the quartier, and worlds we’d never visit otherwise.

The iconic Prefecture at 36 Quai des Orfèvres is now falling to pieces, the flics say — well-worn and tired around the edges, ancient and unequipped to handle the new technology the force needs. They’re moving to a brand-new building that’s designed to gather all the gendarme divisions in one place. It’s in the 17th near the Batignolles park, and the old train switching yards left for many years. Had France gotten the 2012 Olympic bid that went to England, this was where the Olympic Village would have been. I’m kind of glad that never happened. As some flics point out, the move has been long slated, but with the current budget crisis, there’s an advantage to keeping the current headquarters. The genius of being in the very center of Paris is that the city Tribunal is right next door. Prisoners awaiting trial literally go from their holding cells to the court through an ancient underground tunnel. A friend, a flic whose first assignment out of the academy was escorting those in custody from their ancient, funky cells to the court, aptly described the surroundings as “medieval.” That’s just one example of an aspect of Maigret’s time that still applies today.  

Boulevard Richard Lenoir is where the Inspector lived with Madame Maigret. I confess to making a pilgrimage to their apartment building. While I know it’s a fictional building, I couldn’t resist scoping it out. I imagined myself saying, “It would be this street number and, yes, just as Simenon described.” Years later, riding a Vélib, a cycle from the city-wide bike share, I returned home late to find that all the stations near my lodgings on the Canal St. Martin were full. Zut! It was late and drizzling, and I was hungry and looking to rest my aching feet. Finally, I found a single empty spot for my bicycle: on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, right below the Maigret apartment. How I wished Madame Maigret were still up waiting for Jules, warming a pot of cassoulet on the stove. And I’d see him returning from an investigation into the darker side of the City of Light...but for now I’ll just pick up one of those slender Simenon novels.
Cara - Tuesday