“Once again, I miss my opportunity to meet Madame Pompidou.”
“At your age, Maigret!”
His humorous sally was forced, as was her response. They finished their meal quietly, but Madame Maigret knew there was more on her husband’s mind than a fatiguing trip to the other side of the world. A disquiet had come over him. There was no point asking why, since often he did not know the reasons for his own moods. Perhaps Maigret really was possessed of the wildly overreaching instincts attributed to him by his biographer-of-sorts, that disturbing Georges Simenon. A wife should know – but who could know all of Maigret?
“I’d best pack for you, since you’ll be needing time to prepare other things…”
“I have nothing else to do. Really, you’d be surprised if you knew how simple, almost pointless…but I’d best not discuss my ‘mission’, as the government people call it. I’d prefer to help you choose your clothes for the ceremony. In fact, why not buy something new?”
“Oh, my clothes are good enough. Since you won’t be at your own honours ceremony, for whom should I look my best? And it’s not too late to refuse your mission. Sending an eighty year old man to Australia, especially when the task is as unimportant as you say…”
“Not unimportant. Just…just not relevant to my strengths, such as they are…”
He drifted into reflection. What was wrong? She grew anxious, without a peg for her anxiety.
“Maigret, with your poor hearing you must be careful in traffic and crossing the road down there! Australians are descendants of convicted criminals who drive on the left. I know that the one has nothing to do with the other, but…”
Maigret patted his wife’s hands that were crossed too tightly on her lap, and attempted a smile.
His mouth felt dry; the thought of beer crept over his mind. He was still attentive to such cravings, as if their purpose was more than physical. Hunger and thirst were still his mental prompters, a cafe with a few indifferent strangers was still his favoured work station.
Living in Meung-sur-Loire in retirement, he now found his choice of cafes and bistros drastically limited. Yet the habit of a lifetime demanded that he find a place to sit, away from home and work, but with alcohol, in order to think. Think? No. Fictitious detectives think and deduct. It seemed to Maigret that stopping thinking was the closest thing to a method he had. Perhaps the annoying Simenon had that right, though he doubted Simenon got much right.
The Café du Commerce was his preferred stop, though Maigret used all the bars in town, often in the space of two days.
The place was almost empty when he entered. He ordered a beer and took it to a corner. He knew that Madame Roche and her son would be observing him, both out of curiosity and impatience to shut for the evening. It was the kind of trivial tension which Maigret almost needed when his mind was deeply engaged.
After one beer and a pipe, he paid and left.
Now his palate and brain pleaded for a Calvados. The Royale would be open for a bit longer.
He strolled on to the other cafe, entered and ordered his drink. Slightly busier and smokier than the Commerce, it seemed almost to fit his mood as his mind now ran quicker.
After two pipes and three drinks, he took change from the counter and used the phone.
He rang Lucas at his home. It was Lucas himself who answered.
“Commissioner Lucas, sorry to ring late, but…”
“Boss, great to hear from you! And congratulations. Everyone at headquarters is so proud of your honours.”
“The Fifth Republic needs heroes, preferably retired and not given to commenting. Listen, Lucas, we’ll catch up soon, but I need your help. Is Janvier available to escort my wife to the award ceremony? It’s only a small gathering with the Prime Minister and Madame Pompidou, people like Malraux, but no journalists or large audiences to tire the elderly recipients. Some talk of De Gaulle popping in, but it’ll be small and quiet, with only four of us getting awards. No public because they’re too concerned about students or farmers running a protest. Should be over fast.”
“Boss, aren’t you and Madame Maigret going together…?”
“I’m not going. My wife is receiving the award for me.”
“Listen Lucas. I’m leaving the country for a few weeks, it’s all I can say. Actually, I’ll be in Australia – that will be public knowledge – but the reasons are confidential. I need Janvier to escort my wife and I’d like him to take some pictures. Does he still have that camera?”
“He has a much better one.”
“Good. Ask him to ring me in the morning. Important. Sorry, Lucas, I shouldn’t be barking orders at you like I was still in charge, but I don’t have much time before I leave for Australia.”
“You’re the one man who can give as many orders as he likes at the Quai. We haven’t accepted your resignation. You know, little Lapointe is reading all those Simenon stories about you…”
“Tell him its bad for his eyes. Thanks, Lucas. We’ll talk again soon.”
Maigret was not prepared for the length of the trip. The first leg was longest. After refuelling in Bahrain, the flight had ended in Kuala Lumpur. Shocked by the tropical air, instead of strolling about the streets of that city, he spent the evening drinking beer in the hotel bar. From an isolated table he observed certain casually dressed men and women who spoke English with a nasal drone which could suddenly lift to a guttural bark. He guessed that these people were Australians. It would have been good to have his old English friend, Inspector Pyke, to help him make the distinctions.
It was only on the plane from Malaysia to Australia that he bothered to leaf through his supposedly secret brief.
Much of the document contained what everyone knew through news reports. Shortly before Christmas, the Australian Prime Minister had gone swimming in rough waters at a beach somewhere in the far south of the continent. He was never seen again. Maigret smiled a little as he imagined Pompidou – or de Gaulle! – diving into rough surf for sport and then going lost. The thought was so comical that Maigret let out a sudden snort which startled the nearby passengers.
The French government was not concerned by rumours that Holt had been murdered by the CIA because of an intention to withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam, nor by rumours that he had defected to China by submarine. There were some sex and marital scandals but nothing to justify a complex murder plot where foresight was impossible and method uncertain. Looking at several photos of Holt, Maigret perceived him to be conscientious, ambitious, weak, likeable.
What concerned the French government was, in a word, uranium. Holt had an ambitious scheme to make his ore-rich country a leader in civil nuclear energy, and was open to partnerships of all kinds involving nuclear power. Australia and France had been on the brink of forming certain arrangements, which now seemed to be on hold. Maigret did not need to know the details, so he would not be told. What the Foreign Affairs people needed to know was simple: did Holt, in the opinion of Maigret, drown accidentally? Any opinion he formed would be confidential, to be shared only with a certain government representative in Melbourne, Albert de Varennes.
Maigret was expected to tour Australia as a celebrity tourist, and would perhaps be introduced to some powerful figures. Should he form an impression of the new Australian leadership – though such a thing was not within his brief or expertise – he might pass on such impressions to Monsieur de Varennes, but this was incidental. Maigret’s presence near the scene of the Holt death would no doubt attract some attention, but there would be no harm in publicly showing curiosity about the case, provided his role of celebrity tourist was maintained.
Such was Maigret’s brief.
He had been met at Sydney airport by some embassy staff. There were journalists and some photos were taken. Interest was not high, however. Perhaps, in spite of Simenon’s efforts, there were still parts of the globe where Maigret could go about obscurely.
The embassy gave a “French” dinner at a strange restaurant on the city fringe. The staff were all middle European, the food consisted of excellent but over-cooked meat swamped in white or brown glug. During the dinner, he was surprised to learn that Sydney was by no means the power centre of Australia. Everyone who mattered politically seemed to be in Canberra and to originate from Melbourne and the state of Victoria, which was also the industrial heartland of the nation.
When taken back to his hotel in the centre of the city, he was surprised at how quiet it all seemed. Once the office buildings emptied out, the city was deserted. Hotels closed at ten o’clock. Someone at the dinner told him that they had once closed at six o’clock. Still, as a guest at the Menzies Hotel, he was able to get a glass of Pernod and several of Calvados, though the young woman at the bar had great difficulty locating the bottles.
The next day was all but free time. A journalist came and spoke to him in his hotel room. Maigret had trouble understanding his English. Australians seemed to chew massively on their vowels while vibrating them through their noses. Consonants were a blur. Where was Inspector Pyke?
He took a wander through the city, being careful to keep to the flat arterial streets which ran toward the harbour. The absence of anything like a boulevard made the unplanned town seem older and quainter than much of Paris. The radiant April weather seemed too perfect. His first sight of the harbour, as for countless others, was thrilling. Instantly, Maigret understood the city’s advantages. Sydney was the gorgeous and silly girl who would try less in life, but would never be without a dancing partner. Should he mention that in his spoken “brief” to M. de Varennes?
Back at the hotel, he arranged for a call to Madame Maigret.
“Well, Madame Maigret, this is as far from you as I have ever been, or can ever go.”
“Oh, Maigret, I can’t believe one can talk over such a distance. It’s as if you were calling from Orléans.”
“But not so cheap. I must keep it short, they tell me. How are the preparations going for our award ceremony?”
“Very well. Janvier will meet me at the station. His wife wants to meet me there too.”
“Good. And don’t forget photos. They’re important.”
“You’ve never cared about them in the past.”
“Ah, but Janvier will enjoy taking them. And I’ll be curious to see how you outshine la Pompidou.”
“And how is the day there?”
“It’s three in the morning, my dearest!”
“Ah, excuse me. Sleep well.”
Maigret went for another wander, happy to avoid any further appointments for the day.
He was hungry, but, like all tourists, uneasy about ordering and tipping. The very word “restaurant” was a warning to him. He decided on a beer first, and chose a loud and smoky hotel bar near the Quay.
After some awkward communication, a large glass of beer was slapped down before him. When he turned about to look for a table, all he could see was a slop-drenched bench under a window. He decided to simply stand, face the bar and drink. The aggressive manner of all around him, including the barmaids, made him uneasy. Someone beside him barked and he turned timidly toward the sound, only to encounter a tanned, open-shirted man with a frank grin. Perhaps the stranger was merely excusing himself. Maigret smiled back. The man moved away with his beer to join friends. Somehow, the barking tone and aggressive manner of these people meant little or nothing. It was their way.
He decided to wander up one of the cross streets, busy with lunchtime crowds. A curious establishment caught his attention. People were crowding into what looked like a tiny bar called Victor’s, and the spicy, fishy smell that wafted out of it was compelling. On joining a queue, Maigret observed how customers were ordering the same dish, a steaming plate of rice with fat prawns in a yellowish sauce. Maigret ordered the same, and, when receiving it, he automatically thought of beer. Then he remembered the strange separation of eating and drinking that prevailed in Anglo countries. Next he looked for place to sit, but nothing was in sight. Maigret did what no Frenchman does willingly: he ate standing up and even moving about in the bustle. But the dish, curried prawns, was delicious.
Beer was now the main need. He found another of the arterial streets running to the harbour and turned to the right. As long as the street connected to the harbour he would not get lost.
He was struck by the ornate entrance to a hotel bar. On entering, he was amazed to find himself in something so richly coloured and adorned that it could only belong in Victorian England, and only in a palace. It was a hotel bar which smelt stale and sounded like all the others, male voices booming against hard surfaces. But, even in its shabby and worn state, the bar was not merely elaborate. It was beautiful.
After more awkward communication, Maigret got his beer. He noted the price was higher, more of the men around him were suited. He decided to quiz the barmaid who has seemed a little more patient than previous ones.
“Excuse me…but why is this bar so…decorated. It is special, I think?”
“Most gorgeous bar in the world. Cost enough to feed some countries back when it was built last century. Where are you from, luv?”
“Well, when you get back to France, you can tell ’em you had one of the last drinks in the old Marble Bar. We close soon, so they can do the place up. Knowing the building unions and the bloody government, it’ll only take twenty years to re-open.”
A harsh male voice growled from the side:
“Is that mad tart baggin’ the unions again?”
“Shut your bloody commo face, Wal.”
Maigret thought an argument was about to ensue, but the people nearby merely hooted and laughed.
The barmaid asked Maigret when she served him his second beer:
“New A, luv?”
“Are you a new Australian? A migrant?”
“It is a strange thing, madame. I have no business here, but it is very important.”
After the barmaid and those near him thought for a moment, they laughed, and Maigret laughed with them.
That evening, Maigret dined at his hotel, avoiding anything with a French name. He settled for some darkly fried chicken in breadcrumb, served, for some reason, in a little wicker basket.
After dinner, which was served very early, he decided to walk high around the western side of the Circular Quay. In an area full of ancient little houses in view of the harbour he found a tiny hotel and went into the main bar. From over the counter he could see another area with tables and chairs. Walking into this other bar, he noticed a sign above the door: Ladies Saloon Bar. Inside he saw three women each with something large wrapped in newspaper. He paused, then addressed them without entering:
“Excuse me…Men not allowed in here?”
The women cackled together then one of them answered:
“Not wanted…but allowed. Come on in, luv. You a foreigner?”
“Just buy your beer on this side and sit where you like. Don’t mind us. We shell our peas here every night like this.”
Maigret scanned the shelf to find a liqueur he could drink, then decided, to avoid further scenes, to buy what he had been told to call a middy.
When he was seated, he produced his pipe, paused, then asked the women who were shelling their peas if it was all right to smoke. They cackled for a moment then told him to smoke as much as he pleased.
It was the place and atmosphere he needed.
After two pipes and three beers he thought of ringing Lucas, or maybe Janvier, from the Menzies hotel, where he was staying.
But no. He did not know the time in France. And he could rely on those men still. They were his men.
One of the women asked him from across the room, while keeping her eyes on her bundle of peas:
“So, what are you doing over here, pet? What brings you here? New A? Migrant? Holiday?”
“Madame, I’m doing nothing. I like this city very much…but I am here to do nothing.”
The woman turned to her slyly amused friends:
After a friendly cackle, they carried on with their pea-shelling. Maigret offered the three women a round of beers, and they accepted. He went back to his chair, and sat thinking for a while longer. Soon the women bought Maigret a drink, but left him alone otherwise. He was enjoying the amicable indifference of Sydney people. His mind, however, was in Paris.
“Rien, rien, rien…”
“What’s that you’re saying, luv?”
“Oh, excuse me. I was saying nothing…I mean, I was saying the word for nothing…in French.”
More cackling.The women bought him still another beer, explaining it would be his turn again on the fourth round.
By the time the fourth round of drinks was bought and consumed, Maigret was again muttering, this time much lower.
“Janvier…Janvier…Don’t forget my photos.”
Canberra was nothing like Sydney. Boulevards, landscaping and planning were the mark of this young capital city. Maigret had learned that it was made necessary by the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. Though located within the same state as Sydney, it was cut off from Sydney and New South Wales by being part of a small Federal territory. That territory had its own government and administration. Even more strangely, a peninsular far away on the coast also formed part of the territory, and within that little peninsular was a tiny part of New South Wales! Politics did not interest Maigret, but the strange grapplings and compromises of ambition were very much part of his trade. He thought of those staunchly anti-royal Presidents of France who happily serve as Co-Princes of Andorra! His Serene Highness Charles de Gaulle! Ah, when someone really wants something…
Canberra had sweep and perspective. It was open, clean and orderly. Yet Maigret was already missing cramped Sydney, its winding streets and shabby little pubs with joking crones shelling peas in their “Ladies Lounges”.
Here, most of his time was organised, and that was just as well. It was not a place for spontaneous prowling. After a day of being feted, more as a Simenon character than as Commissioner Maigret, he was treated by some cultural ministry to a French dinner at a suburban restaurant. He had ordered some grilled lamb, which came to him cooked stiff and grey, and topped with some garlic butter which appeared to be margarine with garlic powder mashed into it.
His hotel was comfortable, and he was able to smoke several pipes before bed while he mulled over Calvados. A television in the hotel bar was showing highlights of some Rugby League games played that day. Being from the Auvergne, Maigret knew the game of original Rugby quite well, but this Rugby League was now just a vague memory. How many people knew that the game was expanding in France till it was banned by the Vichy government? It was associated with the Left and the Popular Front, and even the Gaullists did not seem to want it now. So strange to see it popular in Canberra, of all places.
The next day he was due to meet dignitaries and perhaps a minister, if available, in Parliament House. He intended to walk, maybe find a bar before making his way there.
To his surprise, he was told by the hotel desk that a chauffeured Ford Galaxy was available to take him to Parliament House whenever he was ready. Perhaps, in view of his age, that would be best. But he was missing the indifference of Sydney, the lazy spontaneity. Perhaps Canberra lacked convict stock.
A greater surprise awaited him. A young man in some kind of usher’s uniform was expecting him at the Parliament building. He introduced himself then bustled Maigret inside and upstairs through a series of corridors then offices. At one desk, which they came to through what seemed a side entry, sat a very young and pretty woman. She flashed a smile at Maigret, said “Hi” and gestured knowingly toward yet another door. The usher knocked and immediately opened to let Maigret pass.
On entering, Maigret found himself in a large and impressive suite. A man who seemed familiar rose from behind his desk and extended a hand. His face was a that of a retired brawler who had taken to drink.
“John Gorton, Commissioner.”
Yes, it was Harold Holt’s successor. Maigret had read about him in the briefing.
“Mr. Prime Minister. A surprise and an honour.”
“Sit down, Commissioner. I’m told you speak good English?”
“Well, I used to speak good English. The war, you know…”
“Yes, you were in England. Free French forces. Chief of Security, is that right?”
“Alas, I am not able to discuss…”
“Ah, righto. I wish I was able to keep my war record secret. Nothing but bloody plane crashes.”
“But you were very heroic, I am told.”
“I never think, easily mistaken for bravery…Look, can I call you Jules or something?”
“By all means.”
“And call me John. Calvados, right? My wife, Bet, she reads all those books about you. Tells me your drink is Calvados. I’ve got some here. Unless you prefer a beer.”
“Beer, definitely! I never read those books.”
“Right, let’s both knock the top off one.”
To Maigret’s astonishment, the Prime Minister of Australia took a can from a small fridge near his desk, pulled the tab off it and placed it in front of Maigret. Then he served himself.
“Listen Jules, as old soldier to old soldier, I know why you’re here.”
“I am here as tourist. And, thanks to Mister Simenon, as a celebrity, perhaps.”
“Look, Jules. I was born out of wedlock to a woman named Sinn. I could never have counted on becoming PM after Harold disappeared. I can’t count on staying in the job for long, any more than I could count on keeping a plane in the air. You get me?”
“Listen, after Harold disappeared the Liberal Party looked around and saw that they had Paul Hasluck – who writes bloody poetry – and William McMahon who…well, let’s not go into that. It just happened that way. There was nobody to replace Harold, although plenty of us thought about booting him for various reasons. Harold himself was just a bodgie replacement for Menzies. I was a Senator, and Senators aren’t supposed to be PM. I’m also trouble. You notice that young girl on the way in? I’m sure you did. I’m trouble. If there had been any choice at all, they would never have touched me.”
“I do not understand, Mister…John.”
“Jules, nobody was advantaged by Harold’s disappearance, except me, very accidentally. That’s the first point. The second point is that all his talk of a nuclear future for Australia didn’t annoy anybody. It’s just that we’ve got so much bloody coal and gas in this country nobody could see the point. He was just talking. As to this special partnership with France, what was it going to be? We know you mob need nuclear because all your coal is gone and you’ve got – what? – one good gas field that’s almost in Spain? Good luck to you! If you want to buy uranium, we’ll sell it to you…
“But there’s nothing in Harold’s death that concerns France. I’m not stopping any great nuclear partnerships, any more than Harold was starting them. Another beer?”
“Please. And, John, please to know that I understand and believe all you say.”
“Even before you said it. Even before I left France.”
“Madame Maigret! I’m holding the photos at this moment.”
“Maigret! Where are you? And how did you get hold of those photos? Why this interest in photos?”
“A man may change with age. And, God knows, I’ve aged…I’m in a place near Melbourne, called Portsea. Doing nothing. I’ll be home directly. I had Janvier send the photos to Melbourne by special air courier. Wired copies wouldn’t have been the same. I needed originals. My favourite is the one of you standing with Malraux and Madame Pompidou. Actually, it’s my second favourite.”
“And your favourite?”
“Ah, a secret for now. I must be off. A charming young Frenchman wants to show me a beach. I think you would love Albert de Varennes.”
The previous night spent in Melbourne had involved much more flattering attention and better food. Melbourne seemed full of enthusiastic readers, the journalists were informed in their questions…the town had a cultural bustle which Sydney lacked.
The French restaurant where he was the guest of the University served him a steak which was truly rare, topped with a true bearnaise. Yet the chef turned out to be Japanese.
His companion for this stage of his “mission” was a fashionable young Frenchman with dark eyes and just enough turbulence in his coal-black hair to express his much in demand Gallic “passion”. No doubt Albert de Varennes was used to Australian girls melting in his presence. Maigret found the earnest, narrow, small-town boy behind the veneer, and liked him enormously.
Albert had been trusted with confidential information about Maigret’s visit, and Maigret was to make discreet oral report to Albert of any impressions or suspicions.
Together they drove the short distance to Cheviot Beach, parked, and got out.
“There you are, Commissioner. Harold Holt drowned out there. Would you like to see maps, check the geographical features? We can walk to that headland to get a different vantage point. Whatever you suggest, Commissioner.”
Maigret surveyed the beach. Though combed by constant ocean winds, there were still high slopes of coastal heath toward one end, which gave the view perspective. The low headland closer to where they stood had an almost pinkish colouring, as did the crescent of sand above the tide line. The water was at least as clear and sparkling as the Atlantic toward Biarritz. Maigret wished for more energy, so he could tramp along the sand, cast off his shoes, maybe.
“Commissioner, as you can see, it’s quite dangerous out there. There have been lots of shipwrecks and drownings over time. There are other features, an old military bunker.,.”
“No, Albert. This was enough. Very lovely. Is there a hotel here?”
“N…no, commissioner. We’d need to drive back to Portsea.”
“Then let’s go there. Portsea has many fine views also.”
Maigret was aware of the young man’s frustration. He wondered when it would burst out. At that moment, it did burst out.
“Commissioner, please don’t think me insolent but, really…”
“Speak your mind, Albert.”
“Well, we are both here on a mission, a mission for France. It may be a waste our time, but, if you show no interest…Please, I don’t expect you to run about. I have the utmost respect for…”
“For my age? For my fictionalised reputation? These things hardly require veneration from the young. Just speak your mind, mon petit…”
“Commissioner, please don’t misunderstand me. I have reports to make, people I must answer to. Your lack of any concern may be justified, but you see my position! An important man has died. It is unlikely but just possible that he may have been murdered.”
“Albert, you must not report anything I say now. In time, you may know why. But a man has been murdered. Not just an important man, but a very great man. The greatest man you or I are likely ever to encounter…
“And today I have trapped his murderer!”
Albert gaped for a moment. Then:
“Great! Commissioner, nobody feels that the admirable Mr. Holt was great, let alone very great. But if you have some evidence concerning his death, then an oral report to me…”
“Mr. Holt? Look out there. A man with various medical conditions in his late fifties? Swimming in conditions far worse than today? And after drowning he would be a fine snack for a shark. Nobody murdered Mr. Holt.
“Albert, someone has been trying to waste your time and mine. But our time has not been wasted.”
“What on earth…?”
Maigret raised a finger to his lips. “Sssh.”
“Perhaps it was Sydney, most of all, that drew me in. Yet I can see why even Australians would not approve of the place. If it is possible for people to be warmly indifferent, the people of Sydney are such. The overwhelming natural advantages of the place make them presumptuous, casual, a little ignorant. One might arrive there and announce that one is a Prince-in-exile. Play the role half-well, entertain them briefly and you may prosper. As to the truth of your claim, no-one will care. It is as if no-one has ever bothered with distinctions, consistencies, plans. Their beer, gambling, sports, brief sensation of any sort, radiant days by water…these things are enough. It’s a bit different in the south of the country.
“But perhaps I loved Sydney instinctively because of my work. There so many of the low have prospered, have kept their impudence, but lost their desperation, their resentment…”
The Maigrets had just finished dining with their closest friends, Doctor and Madame Pardon. The conversation had drifted, inevitably to Maigret’s recent trip to Australia.
Over coffee, it was Pardon who breached the difficult subject.
“And, my friend, are you not able to give us some hint as to the purpose of you mission to the other hemisphere. Surely, it must have been a mission, since you were forced to miss your own honours ceremony. And Madame Pompidou.”
Maigret looked uncertain.
“Whatever I tell about this matter must never be re-told. Above all, Simenon must never know. I need no more celebrity, he needs no more money.”
“Yes, keep that disturbing man out of our lives. He has great talents, but…”
Madame Maigret found Simenon to be a pathetic man. Or rather, he would be pathetic without his frenetic work and constant indulgences. Her husband resembled him in brilliance, though it was a humbler brilliance. Yet Maigret, childless and uninterested in money, had all that Simenon craved and could never have. Yes, if there were no Maigret, the unhappy Simenon would have to invent him.
“I was sent to Australia for one reason: it is about as far from France as one can go.
“No, so much for Australia. To explain my mission, which had nothing to do with Australia, I need to be a little indirect. And I need to raise delicate subjects from some years ago.”
THE STORY OF ACTOR MARCHAND
Soon, de Gaulle and others will be buried, and we will talk more freely about collaboration and resistance.
As for collaboration, we all did it. Who did not have some kind of transaction or relationship with an invader? Each of us knows to what degree he collaborated, how he betrayed just a little to survive, to feed family, to protect or even to stay true. For others it may have been lazy, trivial, arbitrary: I once gave a German some tobacco because I liked his face. There may have been a few purists of non-collaboration who managed to achieve something apart from trouble for themselves and their families. I just don’t care.
Some collaborators deserved punishment, some may have deserved death. But within a few years, many facts will come to light that will break our hearts as a nation. We had better start forgiving now.
As to the Resistance, you all know I must stay quiet on a great number of subjects. But I’m going to tell you now about Actor Marchand. I hope you never reveal what I say. No, I know you won’t reveal it. Yet I have to stress how confidential this is.
First, I need to tell you of the most extraordinary man I ever knew.
Jean Moulin has his name on institutions up and down the country. He is a figurehead of the Resistance for all time, and the French people love him like they love Henry the Fourth, Joan of Arc, and very few others. Madame Maigret knows, the rest of you do not, that I was his London liaison after his return – by parachute! – to France from England in ’42. Everything shocking or romantic you can imagine about our “Max”, as he was known, is probably true. You don’t need me to contribute more to his cinema-worthy image, though I certainly could.
But I ask you to consider this about Jean Moulin. Whatever glamour surrounds his name, what France and de Gaulle needed at that time was a persuader, an administrator, a regulator, who could work under impossible pressure and conditions – and who was fast! My friends, what is not said about Jean Moulin, because it tends to deflate, to flatten his image, is that the man was the finest bureaucrat France has ever produced. He could take painstakingly calculate and administrate in circumstances where most men are content to survive.
That is why his torture and death at the hands of Klaus Barbie was such a catastrophe. However much his martyrdom lifted our spirits, he was indispensable on the practical level.
Remember that the Resistance was a war within a war. Rivalry, murder, betrayal were common. But I don’t wish to stir all that up. Soon it may be stirred up again, after de Gaulle dies and we surrender a little more of our vanity and face our collective frailties. We fool ourselves with all the romanticism about the Resistance, but the rest of the world is fooled less.
Jean Moulin’s main task was to unite up to eight independent groups that did not like and did not agree with each other. Should he continue to succeed against absurd odds, then, in spite of, or even because of, his Leftist background, the Stalin-backed factions in certain groups would be thwarted. The sheer glamour of “Max”, his patriotic leanings, his connection to de Gaulle…all these things would be fatal to their hopes of dividing then dominating the Resistance. These Stalinists were quite capable of betraying a Resistance colleague to the Gestapo. Of course, right-wing members did the same to communist colleagues. Trotskyites and Stalinists betrayed one another. Barbie the Butcher knew how to manipulate these divisions. Such were the times!
In the Terminus Hotel in Lyon, Gestapo headquarters, worked a mentally and physically defective youth called Eddie. Illiterate, slow and hopelessly withdrawn, he lived in a remote, unvisited corner of the hotel, served food and refreshments to the Germans, as well as cleaning and running messages for them. When I say “running”, he shuffled and limped pathetically, something those super-men would have enjoyed. Over a period of time, they grew quite free in discussing matters in his presence, since he was scarcely able to speak or understand anything but the simplest directive in French. They never dreamed he understood their language and half a dozen others.
Only one person on French soil knew that young man’s real identity and role: me. Not even Jean was allowed to know that I had planted a remarkable agent, Edouard “Actor” Marchand, right in the Gestapo headquarters, as the cripple and half-wit called Eddie. He had come to us in London with the best possible credentials from Leon Blum. Blum was uncontactable in a German prison at the time, but we quickly realised that Marchand was superbly gifted actor and spy: perfect to use as a plant and an information pivot for a whole region. We kept him for information alone, and any involvement in local resistance was forbidden. His information enabled us to move cells and individuals ahead of the Nazis. He also enabled us to save the Aubracs and others from Klaus Barbie’s prison.
But the Aubracs and those others were communists…and of the right sort, shall we say.
Eddie was to contact no-one in Lyon. He was only ever to contact me by radio in London and I would relay back to Lyon, or to whatever cell needed to be informed. Through normal intelligence channels we learned that “Max” was to be transferred to Paris. The Lyon people went on high alert. Then Eddie informed me the Gestapo were about to do the transfer at a certain place and time. Our people were ready to attack the escort on the short walk to the station. The plan was complicated, and involved an escape by manhole to the river. But to save Jean Moulin, no plan was too risky.
Eddie – or Actor Marchand – gave us information that had our people prepared to attack the German escort at a certain time of morning in front of the hotel. Instead, the Gestapo put their prisoner in a trunk and, in the middle of the night, carried the trunk out of a rear service door. They then drove, via a round-about route, to a train waiting one station closer to Paris. “Max” was taken off to his death while our people waited uselessly outside the hotel. Since they normally kept the hotel under constant surveillance, they might have spotted the transfer. But Eddie’s wrong information drew our forces to the wrong place at the wrong time.
You may have heard what the Gestapo did to Jean Moulin. It was far worse than anything you’ve heard. He remained silent. We think he managed to kill himself to guarantee his own silence.
I left Eddie in place at the hotel. There was no reason to believe he had deliberately given wrong information. It’s more likely the Germans had changed their minds. The other possibility is that Barbie had discovered who he was and was feeding him rubbish.
When his information cost the lives of two more anti-communists, my suspicions were high. Not without difficulty, I ordered inquiries and some hard interrogations of communist elements in Cahors, Actor Marchand’s alleged home city. Nobody had heard of him. When I tried Leon Blum’s old associates, no one had heard of anyone resembling Actor Marchand. Obviously, I should have made all these inquiries before making the man my primary plant in Central France. But there was a war on, and de Gaulle, though he never met Marchand, liked what he heard of him even more than I did. Have you ever tried saying no to De Gaulle? Still, as Head of Security, the fault was mine.
Actor Marchand was obviously part of the network of trained Soviet plants who were thinning out the Resistance for an eventual communist takeover. There was more than one war, there always is. As I said, such Stalinists were capable of betraying unaligned communists, but no target would have been more important to that element than Jean Moulin. How Marchand suspected my suspicion I’ll never know. Perhaps his instincts are as keen as mine, which, you all tell me, are very keen. In any case, when I arranged for the local Lyon people to “pull” Marchand for interrogation, he was gone.
The co-murderer of Jean Moulin had melted away, and I doubted I would ever encounter him again.
Did it cross my mind that he may have had an understanding with Klaus Barbie? It would be a mystifying alliance, an alliance of two men with nothing in common, except, perhaps, a will to survive all possible outcomes…
Years passed, I retired. Right here in Meung, there was an attack on my life which I was happy to pass off as an car accident. A second attack involved a rifle shot in hunting season. I passed it off as accidental. No, Madame Maigret, don’t worry. That danger has now passed.
At first I thought these disguised attacks were the work of a disgruntled criminal. But my relations with my criminals were not of a kind to excite revenge. Also, the attacks were subtle, designed to attract no attention or suspicion. It was as if the avoidance of attention was more important than the actual success of the attempts. I think that’s why the attempts on my life stopped.
A very vague suspicion entered my mind, so vague I scarcely entertained it.
Then, some weeks ago, I was all but ordered out of the country, at a time when I was to be the recipient of high honours at a ceremony where there would be several other recipients.
I was to investigate the death of Mr. Harold Holt! To readers of Simenon and such stuff, the idea of a famous sleuth solving some dark mystery involving the death of a foreign head of state is perhaps so exciting that it needs no justification.
To me, however, it was nonsense. To anyone not intoxicated by fame and rumour, it was nonsense. But the public is easily intoxicated. No, the French government would never have conceived the idea of sending me to stare uselessly at the Antarctic Ocean, or whatever that ocean is.
But say a single powerful figure within the French government wanted me not in Australia but outside France…
Could it be for any other reason than that I knew something that would be inconvenient to that person? And where else was I likely to encounter that person, except at the awards ceremony?
Have you guessed? Surely you’ve guessed.
I asked myself who had that kind of power. Then I asked myself: Who, in all the world, would fear being seen up-close by me but by nobody else?
So, a faceless man, out of the public glare, but a man of such influence that he could easily persuade a minister of the need send me urgently to the other side of the world. That’s if he bothered to consult the minister, who is, in fact, a very weak fellow with a tenuous hold on his position.
It remained for me to check the names and occupations of my fellow recipients at the ceremony. Sure enough, a certain high-up bureaucrat connected with foreign affairs, none other than the boss of young Albert de Varennes, was to receive an award. I could not be sure he was the one behind the intrigue, but I was close to being sure. Close enough to assume.
Yet this person was wary, a chess player. He just happened to be on special leave till the day before the award ceremony. There was every reason to think he was monitoring my movements, and would go on doing so. I could not probe without alerting.
Should I refuse my false mission? Attempt to identify this person of influence? No. The unknown quarry was wily. I would let the person relax, congratulate himself. Whoever it was may already have tried twice to have me killed, and that was a consideration. I would be safer on the other side of the world, and Madame Maigret would be safer here in Meung if I were absent. Rather than raise any alarms, I did as I was told. But I was careful to arrange for some photos to be taken by Janvier, who had accompanied my wife. By cunning use of his zoom, he was to obtain close-ups of a certain face while appearing to interest himself in Madame Maigret – and Madame Pompidou, perhaps.
Janvier had to be careful. The person would be made nervous by a camera in the hands of one of my inspectors. As it turned out, Janvier was very careful.
And so, several days later, in Melbourne, I held the photograph of a man whom I, and I alone, in all France, could identify.
I was looking at the photo of Actor Marchand. Eddie.
What will they do with him? Yesterday, Marchand – or Monsieur de *****, as he is now called – resigned for health reasons. The killer of Jean Moulin may well have some health problems soon, though nothing will ever be proven against him publicly. I dare say he is at this moment under house arrest, unofficial and consequently rather brutal. He will seek to trade his way out, and may succeed. But it won’t be easy for the man who killed Jean Moulin. I made sure Malraux was informed before anyone else!
The fellow could have made himself unavailable for the awards, rather than send me round the world. But the award was no doubt a very great step forward for him and those he secretly works for. There was a chance to meet and mix with Pompidou, Malraux, maybe even de Gaulle…I can see why he ran the extremely remote risk that I would guess his game.
Was he working just for the Soviets all those years? Perhaps…That would be rather to his credit.
But within every war there are other wars. And, over time, after they have honed their peculiar skills and half-forgotten the juvenile angers they used to call their ideals, such men end up working for many masters, while ultimately serving only themselves.
And if Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, is soon located and arrested, as I hope and expect…
But I have said enough. Too much, in fact.
Now, we’ve got some proper Vervain Liqueur, present from an ex-con, now living in the Auvergne. When you’ve tasted it, you’ll see why I got his sentence commuted.