Historians tend to look askance at presentism, the anachronistic insertion of ideas from the historian’s era into the period of his study. One might have similar scruples about typology, the practice by which the authors and interpreters of the New Testament converted the stories of the Hebrew Bible into coded anticipations of Jesus and Christianity.
Why do I mention these disreputable intellectual practices? Because I am about to suggest – in the most ridiculously presentist, typological fashion – that Lock No. 1 is a novel about Donald Trump.
I do not mean this literally, of course. Yet it is hard not to think of Trump when one encounters Emile Ducrau, the blustering, contemptuous bully at the center of this case. With considerably more justification than Trump, Ducrau sees himself as a self-made man, one who started at the bottom and worked his way into wealth and power. The people he employs bow and flatter, but Simenon makes sure we understand that Ducrau’s domain is actually quite limited. He is more petty tyrant than Alexander the Great.
Like Trump, Ducrau is combative and aggressive, rude to everyone in his sphere and downright cruel to the women, particularly his mistress and long-suffering wife. Yet this arrogance and spite also contains a strong element of theatricality: “One minute he was threatening, yelling, cursing and the next it was far from clear if he wasn’t behaving that way because it amused him.” He is a performer – a consummate con artist – and he detests the weaklings who mistake his playacting for reality.
Miserable to his core, Ducrau seems to sense – as Trump doubtless does – that his accomplishments are hollow and his existence (despite constant and ostentatious displays of virility) sterile. So why does Maigret see him as “someone who was really worth knowing?” I suspect that we are once again – as in Liberty Bar – dealing with a doppelganger. If William Brown functions as a benign double, however, Ducrau is something more malignant, like the appalling specter that haunts Spencer Brydon in Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner.” He represents a wrong turn, a perilous possibility, a grotesque exaggeration of the Inspector’s occasional impatience with the dreary and slow-witted people around him.
Ducrau challenges Maigret at every step, constantly feeling for “what his weak spot might be.” His “undercurrent of malevolence” is so strong that it sometimes overwhelms his more socially acceptable surface. His central gambit is – like Trump – to be blunter and cruder than everyone else, to disarm social defenses by intentionally provoking shock and disapproval and then exploiting the inevitable reflex reactions. Yet Maigret is too smart to take the bait. When Ducrau tries to disarm him by speaking ill of Madame Ducrau, Maigret actually escalates the critique, perhaps because he realizes that, however much Ducrau may demean women in public, he secretly loves and depends on them, almost the way a child does.
Always a quick judge of character, the Inspector realizes at once that, although Ducrau presents himself as invincible, he has in fact been made soft by decades of easy victories. He boasts about his physical strength, for instance, only to lose in seconds when he arm-wrestles Maigret. His preferred mode of dominance is buying people – which explains why he tries so hard to make Maigret economically dependent on him, by offering him a lucrative position once he leaves the police force. Such transactions are what passes for human contact in Ducrau’s life, and they can only leave him unsatisfied.
Through a kind of narrative miracle, Simenon manages a generous portrayal of this unpleasant character. He shows us the man’s almost pathological conceit, but also the insecurities and fears that drive such pathetic self-vaunting. We are left with a complex figure – or, at least, a memorable monster. If that monster seems to prophesy Donald Trump, we can credit Simenon’s skill as a psychologist – the infallible knack he has for analyzing the motives that underlie human behavior.
Who knows? Perhaps some future genius will be able to humanize Trump. In the meantime, we can take some consolation from Lock No. 1. The novel reminds us that even someone who seems to act with impunity, who boasts that he could shoot a stranger in the middle of Fifth Avenue and walk away free, is not really above the law – at least as long as there are Maigrets and Muellers around.
Simenon, Georges. Lock No. 1. trans. David Coward. London: Penguin, 2015.