Oct/Nov 2005  •   Reviews & Interviews

Angels at the Gates: Simenon, Hiaasen, and Paradise Not Quite Regained

Discussion by Pamela Mackey

He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.

If Eden is the earthly paradise lost, Paris and Miami stand as ongoing attempts to bring it back. Each, in its way, is gorgeous: a citadel of sensuality promising pleasures not available elsewhere. Immortality and fountains of youth are appealing but of course improbable lures. In the Paris of George Simenon and the Florida of Carl Hiaasen, they can also be ironically deadly.

Simenon, a young Belgian with limited prospects back home, floated into Paris on the cultural high tide of the 1920s. He lived in a houseboat on the Seine, and paid for it by producing and peddling a veritable tsunami of crime stories and popular novels. Since he used a lot of pen names in the early years, an accurate list of his works can be hard to find. But a common estimate—84 mysteries exploring the career of Jules Maigret, Chief Inspector of the Paris police force, and more than 100 other novels—confirms the general idea of amazing output.

The Maigret stories form the centerpiece of Simenon's oeuvre. Set mostly in and around the writer's adopted city, they offer interesting victims and a menagerie of villains whose derangements, motivations and behaviors, presented in pointillistic prose, show the practice of trusting one's neighbors in a very poor light.

For Simenon, a civil society is about as close to paradise as humans are likely to get, and his Paris is the epitome of civility. Maigret's routines resonate with affinities: the architecture, the streets, the cafes and bistros, even the workings of the Parisian police bureaucracy engage his senses and nourish his spirit. Touchstones of the Chief Inspector's day—from the centering presence of Mme. Maigret and the settled rhythms of a bourgeois marriage, to the trusted colleagues, well-worn routines, and productive but cordial interrogation rituals —inform and support his methodology.

He's organized and he's rational. He savors information with the same avidity he brings to his dinner, and he digests both with the aid of a steady inpouring of alcohol. The insight that clinches a case will not directly depend on this lubrication, but then again, the man drinks all the time.

The mind of Maigret appreciates ambiguities. His heart is a region of moral absolutes. Some of his givens seem musty, almost nostalgic in the post- postmodern world. Women are good (married, clean) or bad (single, stage-struck). A man's posture is a clue to his moral worth. Stylish clothes and street-slang speech suggest character deficiencies and point toward criminality. Murder victims are always sympathetic. Police are rarely shocked and almost never stumped. For all that, the Chief Inspector usually gets his man (or woman). He's the product of an establishment which he reveres and protects from within with the sharp if not necessarily flaming sword of proper police procedure.

Hiaasen, a Florida native, writes for The Miami Herald. He's been a novelist since the early 1980s, the first three titles as half of a team with Herald colleague William D. Montalbano, and another dozen on his own. His background in investigative reporting and his penchant for flushing out and exposing the environmental downside of profitable construction and development projects, translate well to fiction.

Hiaasen presents south Florida's boom as Nature's bust. All his stories focus on a single conflict, and it is the fall from grace. Hiaasen's reenactments of the primal drama emphasize human greed as the road to damnation. His manic stampede of thugs, goons, and mindless dupes—hilariously horrible, deadly dangerous, as only true stupidity can be—argue compellingly for maintaining the ban on humans in Eden.

Hiaasen's heroes are marginal, disillusioned, amoral. They're outsiders, often former insiders, driven to the edge by corrupt establishments. A feral ex-governor. A journalist demoted for checking his facts. Cops sidelined for doing their jobs too well.

Righteous and vindictive, from ever-changing outposts, Hiaasen's gatekeepers improvise weapons of serendipity and wield them, if necessary, to the death. Acre by acre, swamp by swamp, they push back the knucklehead hordes. Anti-Maigrets, at war with a system too corrupt for reform, these outlaw angels win back their paradise one trailer park at a time. They don't anticipate redemption, or armistice of any kind. The land, water and wildlife of south Florida are targets of vicious and persistent attack, and unlike Maigret's Paris, this Eden has no civilized majority, no right-minded bourgeoisie, no time-tested bureaucracy to defend it.

Their campaigns make sense, too, at least while you're reading the books.