Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2748
Georges Simenon began his writing career with romances, envisioning an audience of secretaries and shop girls, but he soon began to imagine another kind of mass audience and another genre. He began writing short thrillers in his early twenties, and one of these, Train de nuit (1930), featured a police officer named Maigret, although this Maigret was only a shadow character. The full embodiment of Maigret came to Simenon all at once after three glasses of gin on a summer afternoon:As Simenon walked, a picture of his principal character came to him: a big man, powerful, a massive presence rather than an individual. He smoked his pipe, wore a bowler hat and a thick winter coat with a velvet collar (both later abandoned as fashions in police clothing changed). But he did not see his face. Simenon has never seen the face of Jules Maigret. “I still do not know what his face looks like,” he says. “I only see the man and his presence.”
The Strange Case of Peter the Lett
The first Maigret, The Strange Case of Peter the Lett, was begun the next day, finished within a few more days, and promptly sent to Fayard, Simenon’s publisher. Yet it was not the first Maigret to appear; Simenon rapidly wrote four more, so that five Maigret novels appeared almost simultaneously and established this popular new detective firmly in the French mind.
Inspector Maigret of the Police Judiciaire is the idealized father figure whose life in many ways reflects that of Désiré Simenon. Born into a petit bourgeois household, he has the close tie to the land and the contentment in small pleasures of the senses associated with petit bourgeois life. He enjoys his pipe and the air on a clear Paris day and the meals prepared for him by his wife, a self-effacing woman whose almost wordless sympathy is equaled in detective fiction only by that of Jenny Maitland. Saddened by his intuitive understanding of the underside of life (and also by the death of his only child—which puts him in the class of the wounded detective), he desires to bring about healing more than to bring criminals to justice. Because his personal desires do not always merge with his professional duties, he is sometimes unhappy about the results of his investigations.
Maigret’s method is intuitive rather than ratiocinative, which places him outside the locked-room armchair-detective school. Indeed, Maigret often says, “I never think.” He means that he feels and senses instead of figuring, and he arrives at his intuitions by immersing himself completely in the milieu of the crime. As he becomes more and more involved with the figures of the incident, he learns to think as they do, and the truth emerges. It is ironic that although the Maigret books followed one another with such astonishing rapidity, there is no classic Maigret plot. Although usually the criminal is caught and brought to justice, occasionally he escapes. Now and then he is punished despite Maigret’s deep regrets, and at least once the wrong man is executed. The stories do not provide the archetypal pleasure of the Agatha Christie type of plot, in which the villain is caught and the society thus purged. Rather, there is often a sense of the relativity of innocence and guilt, and the inescapability of evil. Moreover, it is somewhat misleading to think of the novels as police novels, for Maigret is often fighting the system as well as the criminals. Hampered by bureaucratic shackles and a superior (Judge Comeliau) who represents reason over intuition and head over heart, Maigret is pressed from both sides in his effort to provide some healing for the fractured human beings he encounters.
What makes the Maigrets a momentous departure from the traditional realm of the detective story, though, is not the characterization of Maigret, however intriguing he may be. It is their realism, built on intensely observed detail and grounded in a rich variety of settings, from the locks along the Seine to the countryside of the Loire valley. The stories enter into particular trades and professions, always describing by feel as well as by sight, so that the reader has a sense of having been given an intimate glimpse into a closed world. Even in Maigret (1934; Maigret Returns, 1941), the novel that was intended to conclude the series, the details of the retirement cottage are so subtly and lovingly sketched that readers automatically make the comparison between the country life and the Paris to which Maigret is driven to return by the pressure of events. Simenon was a newspaperman par excellence and his powers of observation and description are his genius. In the context of the novels, the details of weather, dress, and furniture acquire symbolic significance. It is this evocative use of the concrete that raises the Maigrets from the genre and makes them, like Graham Greene’s thrillers, literature.
The first batch of Maigrets consisted of nineteen novels written over four years, from 1930 to 1934, and ending with Maigret Returns, which is atypically set in Maigret’s retirement years. It would seem that Simenon had decided to leave Maigret to cultivate his garden. Simenon then wrote a number of other novels, some of which received critical acclaim. André Gide was one of the writer’s greatest fans, especially appreciating the nondetective novels; what he found to be Simenon’s most compelling quality applies to the Maigrets as well as the other novels. Gide credited Simenon with “a striking, haunting vision of the lives of others in creating living, gasping, panting beings.” Other fans bemoaned the lack of new Maigrets; one even sent a cable to the Police Judiciaire reporting that Maigret was missing. Indeed, Simenon was publicly so involved with Maigret that he could not leave him long in his garden; in 1939, the writer began the second series of novels concerning the popular detective. He continued writing Maigrets along with his other stories until he finally stopped writing novels altogether in the early 1970’s.
The non-Maigret novels with which he interspersed the Maigrets had many of the characteristics of the detective story, except that usually there was little (if any) focus on detection. These are psychological crime novels somewhat similar to the non-Inspector Wexford novels of Ruth Rendell: The character of the criminal is dissected, his effect on others is analyzed, and an ironic discrepancy develops between his self-image and the way he is perceived. The atmosphere tends to be colder and more clinical because of the absence of the father figure, Maigret. Ironically, the theme in these stories is often the need for warmth, identification, and family.
Perhaps typical of the non-Maigret is Le Locataire (1934; The Lodger, 1943), a story of a homeless Jew who impulsively commits a casual and brutal murder and then finds a home in a boardinghouse. The atmosphere of the boardinghouse—its standard decor, its trivial and yet telling conversations—is so perfectly portrayed that it is easy to connect this pension with Simenon’s mother’s experience taking in roomers. The focus of the story is the myth of home with which the exiled Elie comforts himself, a myth that has a dimension of truth. Even when caught (the police are in the background, and readers barely encounter them but do see the results of their investigations), Elie is followed by the dream of home he has invented, as the owner of the boardinghouse goes to see Elie off on the convict ship.
Criminals notwithstanding, these novels are not fully realized detective stories, because the discovering or unraveling aspect is missing (as well as the complementary balance between investigator and culprit, who in the Maigrets are often something like father and errant son). These other novels are more like case studies that underscore the unpredictability of the human animal in the most extreme circumstances. The Maigret addict who is also a general detective-story fan may be unable to make the transition.
The second Maigrets did not begin appearing until 1942, when four of them appeared in rapid succession to launch the new series. Many of these new Maigrets do not contain the detective’s name in the title, causing some confusion among Maigret fans and those who would choose only Simenon’s non-Maigret novels. Much critical discussion has focused on the differences between the new and the old series, but in fact the later Maigrets are not substantially different from the early ones, although it might be argued that they show more careful attention to plot and that they have a higher proportion of main characters who are ratés—failures—of one sort or another. One unarguable difference, too, is that they reflect Simenon’s American experience, even going so far as to introduce an American police officer who serves as foil and apprentice to Maigret.
Simenon and Graham Greene
Considering the mixture of detective novels and other novels, as well as the characteristic Simenon plots and themes in both, it is worth comparing the French novelist with Graham Greene , who also wrote a mixture of thrillers and literary novels and dealt with the same materials in both. The French failures in the Maigrets correspond with Greene’s seedy British types. The themes of flight, of the need to escape self, of intuitive penetration of the darkness of human existence are parallel. Both authors use precise, concrete details to communicate a moral ambience. An important difference is that Greene’s Catholic underpinnings are not present in Simenon’s novels, or at least are not immediately evident. Some critics have claimed to see them, and Simenon, who claimed agnosticism, has conceded that there may be something to the religious claims made for his work.
The reliable character of Maigret carries Simenon’s detective novels even when their plots fail. Fatherly, reflective, Maigret makes the reader believe that justice will be done if it is humanly possible—a qualification that sets these novels apart from the Golden Age detective stories by such writers as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, in which justice is always done. In the typical Maigret, the detective is filling his pipe at the beginning of the story and looking out his office window at some unpleasant manifestation of Paris weather when the case begins. He consults his officers, the same characters briefly but effectively sketched in novel after novel: the young Lapointe, whom Maigret fathers (and calls by the familiar tu); the Inspector’s old friend Janvier; the miserable Lognon who is like Eeyore in Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), always feeling abused and neglected; and others. (Sometimes the inspector is at home, asleep, when the call comes—and his wife has everything ready for his departure before he hangs up.) Throughout the investigation, he orders some characteristic drink (different drinks for different cases) at various cafés, while Mme Maigret’s cassoulets or tripes go cold at home. (Some of Maigret’s favorite dishes make the American reader’s hair stand on end.) When the criminal is finally apprehended and his confession recorded, Maigret often goes home to eat and to restore himself in the comfort of his wife’s silent sympathy. The reader is always Maigret for Maigret’s little idiosyncrasies and for those of the other recurrent characters; thus, the ritual is enacted successfully even if there is some standard deviation from the typical plot, such as the escape of the criminal or a final sense that justice was not quite done.
Despite the pleasant familiarity of the characters and the archetypal paternalism of the inspector, style and theme give the Maigret novels depth. The smallest observations—how a prostitute’s face looks when dawn comes in the course of questioning, what is in an aggressively house-proud bourgeoise’s kitchen, what the nightclub owner’s wife does each night to prepare for the club’s opening—are so convincingly portrayed that the reader feels that he too is penetrating into the mystery. The mystery is the secret of the human heart, as it is in Graham Greene’s novels. Simenon’s style is not hard-boiled, nor is it overly descriptive. It is evocative and direct—a few words, a detail, a snatch of dialogue carry multiple suggestions. A half sentence may intimate an entire complex relationship between a husband and wife. The recurrent weather details make the reader gain a sense of the atmosphere. Simenon’s details not only are visual but also appeal to the other senses, particularly the tactile. The reader feels on his own skin the fog that is blurring Maigret’s vision; he too glories in the occasional clear day. Simenon’s use of the concrete is not unlike Colette’s; indeed, this famous celebrant of the sensual was Simenon’s adviser and friend.
As has been suggested, the flaw in the Maigret story is most often the plot; Simenon claimed to give little attention to plotting, and even not to know how a story would end until he had finished it. Nevertheless, his best plots are psychological tours de force. The unveiling of character is steady throughout the series of events; readers sense the intuitive rightness of Maigret’s insights, and, at the end, they find that the motive meshes with the deed.
Maigret in Montmartre
Not all of his stories, however, afford this sense of closure. Maigret au “Picratt’s” (1951; Maigret in Montmartre, 1963) is a case in point. In this story the focus is on the victim, a twenty-year-old nightclub stripper who becomes after her death a fully realized character, through the course of the investigation. She is given a subtle case-study history and a network of believable motivations, and through analysis of her life Maigret is able to identify her killer. Yet this killer remains a shadow character himself, and therefore the final scenes in which the police track him down are somewhat anticlimactic. One expects some final revelation, some unveiling of the killer’s nature, but none is forthcoming.
Other stories, such as Maigret et Monieur Charles (1972; Maigret and Monsieur Charles, 1973), focus on both criminal and victim, so that the conclusion has no (or at least fewer) loose ends. It is indeed rare that the plot of any Maigret is itself particularly compelling. Plot is a function of character in Simenon’s works, and the success or failure of plot hinges on the adequate development and believable motivation of the people involved. The early Maigrets, such as Le Charretier de la “Providence” (1931; The Crime at Lock 14, 1934; also known as Maigret Meets a Milord, 1963), are particularly susceptible to weakness in plot. This story gives an intriguing, provocative picture of a criminal in whom the reader somehow cannot quite believe.
No one, however, reads Maigrets for the plot. They are read for character, for atmosphere, for the ritual of detection, for the more subtle benefits of this genre of literature, including no doubt the values Aristotle found in tragedy: the purging of pity and fear. Simenon’s true genius lay in his merging of French realism with the traditional detective story, with the effect that the detective-story understanding of justice is modified to an ideal that is appropriate for life in the real world. Justice in the Maigret stories is not a negative, fatalistic force, as it usually is in the stories of the hard-boiled school (some of which have no winners in the end except the investigator, and all he has gained is the sad truth). Nor is justice the inexorable working out of divine retribution as it is in the Golden Age stories, in which evil is purged and the innocent are left ready to begin new lives. Rather, Simenon’s world is a complex and ambiguous place where evil and good are closely related and cannot always be separated. There is still, however, a chance for purgation and rededication, usually supplied by the intuitive researches of that archetypal father figure, Inspector Maigret.
Maigret and Monsieur Charles
The last Maigret, Maigret and Monsieur Charles, appeared in 1972; after that, Simenon announced that he would write no more novels. Maigret and Monsieur Charles is a subtle psychological study of an unhealthy relationship. This story, satisfying on levels of plot, character, and theme, makes an appropriate farewell to Maigret. The hundreds of Maigret novels and short stories Simenon wrote over a period of forty years will continue to appeal not only to detective-story fans but also to those readers attracted to evocative description and intrigued by the darker side of human experience.
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