Before his dozens of tales about the celebrated Inspector Jules Maigret pushed the roman policier well toward the psychological novel, Simenon had already mastered its nominal opposite, the puzzle story. In 1929, he was commissioned to write three separate series of such stories for Détective magazine, each story appearing in two installments to allow readers two weeks to ponder the riddle before he revealed the solution. The third series of 13 stories, and the most challenging to solve, now appears in its first complete English translation. Monsieur Froget, the examining magistrate, interrogates a series of variously alienated misfits in trenchant dialogues that reveal not whodunit—the title of each story identifies the culprit—but how and why. Though the formula might seem unduly confining, the results are revelatory. M. Froget effortlessly proves an eight-year-old case of murder against the spurious adventurer Ziliouk, unmasks the fraud a family killed a dying man to preserve, exposes the truth about a prostitute’s unfortunate run-in with a dangerous client calling himself the Pacha, and unearths the truth about an African-American wanted for murder back home. The psychological overtones of Maigret’s duels with malefactors are not slighted but compressed; an even deeper pleasure is Simenon’s authoritative command of the puzzle form he was soon to leave behind. Schulman’s translation faithfully preserves the author’s often willful shifts in verb tense.
Contemporary mystery-mongers could take these soiled jewels as examples of how much incident and insight a master can fit into ten pages.