One quality, the finest. A celebration of French language and culture.

When Peter Mayle passed away in 2018, I realized that I had never read any of his books; my only connection was having watched A Good Year, with Russell Crowe, when it came out. The British ex-pat wrote prolifically and with great humor about life in the south of France, most famously, A Year In Provence. I added all the Mayle titles to my wishlist on Outlook, the free audiobook service through my library.

Eventually, I worked my way to The Vintage Caper, which turned out to be the first of the four volume Sam Levitt series. The others are The Marseille Caper, The Corsican Caper, and The Diamond Caper. In French, the title of The Vintage Caper is Château l’Arnaque (sha- toe lar- nak), which means “Swindle Castle.” I have listened to all four books now and many of the characters reappear, allowing for a little more development than in a typical caper tale.

Sam Levitt is an investigator who seems to be a modern Sam Spade. All the usual tropes are there: guns, gangsters, and a beautiful gal on his arm. This is NOT high literature and the sexist banter may set your teeth on edge at times, but overall it’s a lighthearted read or listen. Along the way, Mayle drops restaurant, wine, and hotel recommendations as Levitt wrangles bad guys who have some high-class connections. It’ll make you itch to book your next trip to the sunny south of France, particularly if you are living through winter in New England!

I recently watched La Tête Haute (lah tet ote), on Netflix, starring Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve plays the role of a judge who becomes involved in the life of a young boy whose mother is incapable of properly caring for him. Malony (Rod Paradot) bounces in and out of the judge’s chambers through his late teen years, getting into increasingly serious trouble, despite the genuine care shown by both the judge and his social worker, played by Benoît Magimel. The film does have an optimistic ending, which actually troubled me. It almost felt as though they were suggesting that teenage fatherhood was going to turn this young man around, instead of perpetuate the cycle.

This film brought so many pieces of my life to mind. I used to work for a judge who heard cases of abuse and neglect of children. I also served on a juvenile justice committee and was briefly a foster parent to a troubled teenager. Certainly, the sense of people being locked in a cycle of violence and neglect was present. My judge had been seeing some of the people who appeared before her for years before my clerkship and no doubt still saw them long after I had moved into private practice. It was interesting to see the informal way cases involving children were presented in chambers in France rather than with robes and a high bench. Some parts of the film were highly realistic portrayals of juvenile justice cases but others not so much. For instance, social workers who assault their clients don’t just get a reprachful look from the judge!

The movie did well at the César awards in 2016, winning two of the top prizes for the male leads and being nominated for an additional six categories. In English, the title is given as “Standing Tall,” but a more literal translation would be something like “Head Held High.” I didn’t love the film, but it sure made me appreciate my own parents and reminded me of why I left law!

Lately I’ve been reading a police detective novel written by Georges Simenon, the Belgian writer of the Commissaire Maigret series. I’ve always enjoyed mysteries and they are generally accessible reading for the high intermediate foreign-language reader. Simenon was incredibly prolific with almost 500 novels to his credit, 550,000,000 of which were sold to his avid fans. Apparently, he could crank out at least 60 pages of new text a day. The 75-volume Maigret series spanned 1930 to 1972. It was extremely popular on television, where it has been serialized three different times in Britain, once in Italy, and twice in France.

Simenon, however, was not exactly the most admirable of fellows. He moved to France as a young man and, during the war, came under suspicision both by the Gestapo and as a collaborator. Apparently, the Germans erroneously thought he was Jewish and the French weren’t impressed that he’d sold movie rights for Maigret to the Germans. His unpopularity in France caused him to move to Switzerland and then the United States. He also had more lovers than novels – and I mean that literally – he estimated that he had 10,000 amantes!

The novel I’ve been reading is Maigret et l’inspecteur malgracieux, first published in 1947. Malgracieux (mal-grass-ee- uh) is not a word that you will find in Wordreference. I think the best translation, based on the behavior of the character, would be “ungracious.” The book is actually a collection of four novellas, each generally of three chapters. The stories present a Paris where working-class people are just getting by in the post-war era, not the glittering center of chic that we normally think of. Maigret solves the crimes with the help of smoking his pipe and a devoted team. He seems to be about as unlike his creator as it is possible to be, with the exception of the ever-present pipe.