There, I said it.
A glamorous woman is found murdered in a stable near the canal where her wealthy husband’s vacation barge, La Providence, is tied up for the night. Inspector Maigret soon arrives, determined to find the killer. His suspects run up and down the social ladder from the barge crews, lock attendants and assorted river men to the wealthy business men and foreign aristocrats who vacation along the river.
Sounds a lot like Death on the Nile to me. While Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express were both still to come in 1931 when The Carter of La Providence first appeared, Christie had already published seven novels, including four Poirots and one Miss Marple. Was Simenon writing in response to Christie? I’m not familiar enough with his biography to answer this, but maybe someone out there can let me know in a comment. It strikes me as possible.
Simenon may be playing with a Christie-like set-up, but he does not follow her formula much. Maigret arrives and interviews witnesses, but he does not work with a list of suspects the way Poirot does. There is no cat-and-mouse game played with the reader, it’s this one, no it’s this one instead, nor is there a final scene with all the suspects gathered in one room. Instead, Maigret gathers evidence, figures things out, comes to a conclusion based on the evidence, then confronts his suspect.
Here the confrontation is not as confrontational as it was last time; the killer has our sympathies more or less. Maigret seems a little bit sorry to have found him out.
What makes The Carter of La Providence interesting is something I usually deplore in detective fiction, the investigation into the setting. Simenon’s detective must investigate life among the bargemen of the Seine in order to find the killer. Since the details of life on the river figure into the mystery, the reader must spend time on the river the way a vacationer might which makes The Carter of La Providence much more escapist reading than Maigret novels usually are. There’s murder, certainly, but each time a barge reaches a lock, the bargemen gather inside the lock-keeper’s establish for a beer and conversation.
I found myself seriously thinking about how nice it must have been to relax on a river barge, watching the horses walking along the shore, pulling the boat up the river. Even Maigret himself found this way of life attractive though he must return to the city at the novel’s end.