An anonymous letter announcing that a murder will happen on All Souls’ Day during early mass brings Inspector Maigret back to his hometown. While being dogged by memories of his youth he tries to find out the truth about an act leading to a death that may be immoral but not necessarily criminal.
The setup of the mystery is rather strange because the success of the deadly plot hinges on the assumption that a fatal heart attack can be induced by a big enough shock. Sure it can, especially if the victim, as is the case here, has a serious heart condition but still, is the chance of success high enough to rely on that outcome absolutely? And then, in order to get rid of them, someone is implicated in the murder although it isn’t even a prosecutable crime? So what exactly does that accomplish?
Then there is the big reveal at the end where all the suspects are gathered at dinner and the solution is slowly uncovered. The start is excellent, creating a claustrophobic and exciting atmosphere, but then it descends into a melodramatic and farcical mess in which one of the other characters takes the reins, and Maigret is nothing more than a bewildered onlooker. It is such a jarring shift in tone because everything up to that point is so understated and sparse.
Other than this scene, though, the mood is fantastic. Rural France in the 1930s is not a place of many comforts, and November is a cold and dreary time; the bleakness of the environment matches the desolation of many of the characters, and their failures and vices are displayed prominently. Simenon takes an especially illuminating look at class relations. The members of the noble family in this small town are still shown deference although their downfall is happening in front of everyone. They are impoverished, the old countess has gone through a number of boy toys since the death of her husband, and her son is a bum. Still, remnants of a long gone feudal past are lingering in these remote areas, and neither the lack of money nor the absence of morals seem to have any impact on the standing of these aristocrats.
Despite the flawed premise, I enjoyed reading this right up until the reveal scene. There are many glimpses of excellence in this book, but the end was such a failure it had me scratching my head. I also would have expected more of an insight into Maigret himself since the story is set in his hometown, but there is very little that enlightened me about his character. Sadly, this book is a bit of a disappointment overall.