For as long as I can remember I've harbored a vague (very vague) interest in reading something by Georges Simenon, in particular the Maigret series. But until last week I never went so far as to actually read a word by him. I don't know why I put it off so long. I'm neither Francophile nor -phobe. I have pleasant memories from long ago of two stays in Paris for a couple of weeks each time, and I shared a room with an extended family of cockroaches one night in Marseille. Maybe some psychological clock’s been ticking all the while and the alarm finally went off. Or it might have been the excellent review I read recently of the very first Maigret novel—PIETR THE LATVIAN—by my blogging buddy Sergio Angelini, which persuaded me to read the novel. I did, and was hooked. In fact I swallowed the hook.
Maigret is the most engaging fictional police officer I’ve encountered. I had a similar response to Arnaldur Indridason's Inspector Erlendur in the two novels of that series I’ve read. Both characters have what seemed to me an unusual capacity for empathy—with victims and suspects alike—and a penchant for introspection. Dogged in their pursuit of solutions to mysterious deaths, both lean heavily on intuition, sometimes at the expense of forensic evidence, and they’re not afraid to stand up to superiors at risk to their careers. I confess to being more enthusiastic about Maigret, most likely because it taps deeper into my psyche, reaching that nearly buried personal French connection. I’ve never been to Iceland.
I’ve billed this report a twofer but have decided to avoid the embarrassment of trying to compete with Sergio’s review, which I highly recommend. You can reach it here.
Instead, I did a little online sleuthing to see what I might find about Georges Simenon and his creation: Detective Chief Inspector Jules Amédée François Maigret of the Paris Police Judiciaire. I also scanned the Maigret novels listed on Amazon, and found, to my delight the title MAIGRET’S FIRST CASE, which I devoured after promptly downloading it onto my Kindle app. On the heels of reading Simenon’s debut Maigret, I imagined the fun he must have had some thirty episodes later taking us back to meet his star character as a rookie police officer, and it fascinated me to see the embryo of a full-blown, nearing-middle-aged Maigret in the wet-behind-the-ears youth of twenty-six.
Most of the traits we see in the wiser, more experienced Maigret are evident in the younger version. "Maigret, more than any other detective with a ream of adventures under his belt, rarely solves crimes; instead, he solves people,” writes Scott Bradfield in a NYT Sunday Book Review piece titled The Case of Georges Simenon. "Maigret rarely has to search hard for clues, Bradfield continues, “they are constantly occurring all around him, like the casual altercations of people in crowds. In fact, Maigret’s chief talent doesn’t seem to be genius, or method, or physical strength, or even hard work — rather, he’s simply interested in people, and why they behave the way they do…
"Simenon slowly abandons all the traditional, manipulative nonsense of mystery and crime fiction, and allows his middle-class, relatively conventional hero to roam freely above and beyond the dull, self-constrained lives of murderers (and their victims) that inevitably become, for him, all too human, all too believable and no more “guilty” of anything than just about everybody else."
And yet, there’s something substantive—heavy, even—about Maigret, a sort of ambulatory Nero Wolfe whose authority suffers no compromise from the candor of his sharing doubts and introspection with us. Suspending disbelief, as I always try to do when reading well-written fiction, I never doubted in either novel the plausibility of Maigret’s intuition as he pondered the culpability or innocence of people he was investigating. As to the plotting, with only two Maigrets under my belt I am hardly qualified to take issue with Bradfield’s opinion that the early novels are “far from the best” in the series. He pronounced Pietr the Latvian a “crude initial effort” (a tad harsh, in my opinion), and dissed the next several as “rather gimmicky Agatha Christie-style whodunits.” I shall reserve judgment until I’ve read the next Maigret on my to-read list, the series’ second, The Late Monsieur Gallet.
Simenon’s skill with Maigret comes through to me even with my scant familiarity with the series. Two scenes contrasting from the first novel with the first case (30th or 31st novel) emphasize the distance in time on the character’s development. This from Pietr, in which Maigret is confronting the socialite wife of a multi-millionaire who’s gone missing:
‘Well now! Is that how you conduct a manhunt?’ she said to Maigret. ‘I’ve just been told you’re a policeman … My husband might have been killed … What are you waiting for?’
The look that then fell upon her was Maigret through and through! Completely calm! Completely unruffled! It was as if he’d just noticed the buzzing of a bee. As if what he had before him was something quite ordinary.
She was not accustomed to being looked at in that way. She bit her lip, blushed crimson beneath her make-up and stamped her heel with impatience.
He was still staring at her.
Because he was pushing her to the limit, or perhaps because she didn’t know what else to do, Mrs Mortimer-Levingston threw a fit.
And this from the young Maigret, who is following up a complaint from a musician who claims he heard a woman cry for help from the second floor of a mansion, and then heard a gunshot after it appeared someone had pulled her away from the window:
In those days, Maigret was almost as thin as the flautist, so skinny that as they walked up the road they looked like two raw-boned adolescents...
The situation was actually rather alarming. As he raised his hand to ring the bell, Maigret felt his chest tighten, and he wondered which regulation he could invoke. He had no warrant. Besides, it was the middle of the night. Could he really claim a crime had been committed when his only evidence was the flautist’s swollen nose?
Like the musician, he had to ring three times, but he did not have to kick the door. At length a voice called out:
‘What is it?’
‘Police!’ he said in a slightly tremulous voice.
Of the many minor characters in this novel, one stands out so prominently as to compete with Maigret for memorability. He’s a petty criminal known as Dédé, an audacious hedonist with charm and seemingly unrestrained appetites. Made me wonder if Simenon used him in other novels, perhaps even making him a bestselling novelist. From Scott Bradfield’s little retrospective in The New York Times, one could get the impression Dédé and his creator would have gotten along quite infamously.
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]