By Barry Forshaw (author of Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide and a forthcoming study of Georges Simenon)
Georges Simenon, the creator of Commissaire Jules Maigret, had a profound influence on other crime writers (the late Andrea Camilleri – of Montalbano fame – would point proudly to his complete set of Maigret novels).
By the time of his death in 1989, Simenon was the most successful writer of crime fiction in a language other than English in the entire field, and his French copper Maigret had become an institution. Simenon created a writing legacy quite as substantial as many more ‘serious’ French literary novelists, with his non-Maigret standalone novels among the most commanding in the genre – particularly notable is The Stain on The Snow, an unsparing analysis of the mind of a youthful criminal. André Gide’s assessment of Simenon as ‘the greatest French novelist of our times’ may have been hyperbolic, but Simenon’s books provide a fascinating, trenchant picture of French society.
A one-man Trojan horse
Crime in translation may have achieved massive breakthroughs in the twenty-first century, but long before this trend Simenon was a one-man Trojan horse for the field. Georges Joseph Christian Simenon was born in Liège, Belgium on 13 February, 1903; his father worked for an insurance company as a clerk, and the latter’s health was not good. Simenon, like Charles Dickens before him, had to work off his father’s debts, giving up the studies he enjoyed to toil in a variety of dispiriting jobs (including, briefly, working in a bakery). A spell in a bookshop was more congenial, as Simenon was already attracted to books, and his first experience of writing was as a local journalist for the Gazette de Liège. It was here that he perfected the economical use of language that was to be a mainstay of his writing style, and Simenon never forgot the lessons he acquired as a reporter. Even before he was out of his teenage years, Simenon had published an apprentice novel; he also became a key member of an enthusiastic organisation styling themselves ‘The Cask’ (La Caque), a motley group of aspiring artists and writers along with assorted hangers-on.
The fleshpots of the City of Light
Despite the bohemian delights of the Cask group, it was inevitable that Simenon would travel to Paris, which he did in 1922, forging a career as a journeyman writer. He published many novels and stories under a great variety of noms de plume.
Simenon took to the artistic life of Paris like the proverbial duck to water, submerging himself in the capital’s many delights at a time when the city was at a cultural peak, attracting émigré writers and artists from all over the world. He showed a particular predilection for the popular arts, becoming a friend of the celebrated American dancer Josephine Baker after seeing her many times in her well-known showcase La Revue Nègre. Baker was particularly famous for dancing topless, and this chimed with the seam of sensuality that was to run through the writer’s life. As well as sampling the fleshpots (along with more cerebral pursuits), Simenon became an inveterate traveller, and in the late 1920s, he made many journeys on the canals of France and Europe. There was an element of real-life adventure in Simenon’s life at this time, even becoming an object of police attention while in Odessa, where he made a study of the poor. His notes from this time produced one of his most striking novels, Les Gens d’en Face (1933), which was bitterly critical of the Soviet regime, which the author saw as corrupt.
As the 1930s progressed, Simenon wrote several of his police procedural novels featuring doughty Inspector Maigret (his principal legacy to the literary world), but he did not neglect his world travels, considering that the more experience of other countries he accrued, the better he would be as a writer.
Like many Frenchmen, Simenon’s life was to change dramatically as the war years approached. In the late 1930s, he became commissioner for Belgian refugees at La Rochelle, and when France fell to the Germans, he travelled to Fontenay.
Simenon and Maigret
There is absolutely no debate as to which of Georges Simenon’s creations is most fondly remembered: the pipe-smoking French Inspector of Police Jules Maigret. The detective first appeared in the novel Pietr-le-Letton (The Case of Peter the Lett) in 1930, and the author stated that he utilised characteristics that he had observed in his own great-grandfather. Almost immediately, all the elements that made Maigret so beloved were apparent: Commissaire in the Paris police headquarters at the Quai des Orfèvres, Maigret is a much more human figure than such great analytical detectives as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and his approach to solving crimes is usually more dogged and painstaking than the inspired theatrics of other literary detectives. What Simenon introduced that was new in the field of detective fiction, was to make his protagonist a quietly spoken observer of human nature who uses the techniques of psychology on the various individuals he encounters (both the guilty and the innocent) – without any ill-considered moral condemnation.
Simenon had Maigret working in the vice squad early in his career, but sans the tongue-clucking disapproval that was the establishment view of prostitution at the time (Madame de Gaulle famously sought – without success – to have all the brothels in Paris closed down). Maigret, with his eternal compassion for the victim, viewed these women non-judgementally, even when faced with the dislike and distrust of the women themselves. There is social criticism here – Maigret is always searching for the reasons behind the crime, and sympathy is as much one of his qualities as his determination to see justice done.
Maigret on screen: the Rupert Davies series
As well as individual TV adaptations of Simenon’s Maigret novels, there have been various complete series – in France, of course, but also in Italy, Holland, Russia and Japan – but without dubbing or subtitling, these versions remain terra incognita for English-speaking audiences. But perhaps the best version was produced for British television in the 1960s.
Of the many actors who have played Commissaire Jules Maigret, Simenon admirers often debate who was the key performer in a list that included such French actors as Jean Gabin, Bruno Cremer or Pierre Renoir (who one might have expected to be a shoo-in as first choice). But always in contention is the British actor Rupert Davies, who played the character in a much-loved TV incarnation that began in 1960. This early television version of Simenon’s immortal detective was so definitive, that it remained the defining image of the character for generations of viewers. While the actor Rupert Davies created a subtle and well-rounded version of the implacable French copper, the TV films in which he appeared had less apparent French colour than modern viewers might now expect – but the choice of locations was always spot-on (exteriors were frequently shot in Paris). And even though the language spoken was English, viewers quickly accepted the notion that we were watching something indelibly French. In the same way that Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes effectively trounced a legion of highly successful incarnations of the character, the dour but humorous Davies was impeccable casting. Those who reacquaint themselves with his performances, or watch them for the first time (the series has not been available for some considerable time, which makes Network’s complete Maigret collection very welcome) will quickly realise that Davies was a much more nuanced and interesting actor than he might previously have appeared, despite sterling work in such supporting roles as the tortured priest in Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968). While actors as prestigious as Charles Laughton and Jean Gabin used grander, more theatrical flourishes in their versions of Maigret, Davies (and his directors) invariably eschewed such larger-than-life performances – even when on occasion the detective is seen to lose his temper.
The series was first transmitted in October 1960 and it ran to a respectable 51 episodes before its termination in December 1963. Such was the affection that Davies enjoyed with the British public as Maigret, that some six years after the series finished, there was also a one-off production, in February 1969, of the Simenon novel Maigret On The Defensive (retitled for the adaptation Maigret At Bay), with Davies once again fitting comfortably into the part. This late flowering of the character was presented as part of the BBC TV Play Of The Month series.
Those who have sampled the other iterations of the detective in both television and film incarnations, are unlikely to argue with the fact that Rupert Davies remains the definitive Maigret.
Andrew Osborn was the executive producer for the BBC TV series, with the customary variety of writers and directors handling individual episodes and doing an excellent job at converting the novels. In fact, for anyone familiar with the original books, one has to admire the sheer skill of the adaptations. Obviously, given that Simenon specialised in complex and detailed plots, not every strand of the narrative could be included, and several things had to be telescoped – something that the various writers and directors of the series handled with great dexterity. And it wasn’t just a question of winnowing things out, to make things work on the screen that had worked well on the page: new linking episodes in the stories had to be created, and these were always done in the spirit of Simenon. And there was also the extra dialogue which had to be added to cover things which would have been described in the third person on the page: this often included witty remarks for Maigret, and The White Hat includes good examples of that, with the dry asides given to Rupert Davies’s Maigret chiming perfectly with the original novel. That episode has other finessings that demonstrate the audacious (but appropriate) changes needed to convert the episode from the printed page to the TV image. The title of the original novel is L’Amie de Madame Maigret or The Friend of Madame Maigret. It refers to an important plot point in which the detective’s wife is involved with a mysterious young woman (wearing the eponymous white hat), who temporarily and inexplicably leaves her baby in the care of Maigret’s wife. The incident is to have relevance later, but, in fact, the very title of the original novel becomes inappropriate as the young woman whom Madame Maigret meets is no longer her friend with whom she has had several meetings previously; in the adaptation, a one-off meeting leads to the temporary abandonment of the child. But given the allotted time for the episode, this change is perfectly sensible, as the crucial thing about the plot is the solving of a case involving the burning and disposal of a body and Maigret’s clash with the supercilious and snobbish barrister Liotard. It is a good example of skilful adjustment.
Maigret series regulars included such accomplished actors as Ewan Solon, spot-on as the reliable Lucas, Helen Shingler, sympathetic in the crucial role of Madame Maigret, Neville Jason as Lapointe and Victor Lucas as Torrence. Before Network’s sterling service in making the series available again in a handsome Blu-ray box, several episodes could only be seen in the BFI archives in London. The British TV company HTV also produced a one-off two-hour drama entitled Maigret in 1988, based on several novels, with Richard Harris as a rather Celtic Maigret.
The Michael Gambon series
Later, the Michael Gambon series of 1992 did similar justice to Simenon’s novels. While Gambon is a master of the large-scale, unrestrained effect and several impressive movies utilise this facet of his talent, he is also adept at understatement and quieter observation — characteristics fully utilised in his Maigret series. The construction of the series often relies on more outrageous behaviour being the province of suspects and villains, while Maigret coolly looks on. Gambon, tapping his pipe and observing everything with those flickering, slightly hooded, oriental eyes, is impeccable casting. The series ran for two seasons in 1992 and 1993, and while the production values are modest, there is always a convincing Gaelic feel to the proceedings (even though the much-utilised Budapest stood in for Paris) and the various directors and writers hired for the series made no missteps in the translation of Simenon’s narratives to the screen. The problem of having English-speaking actors constantly refer to French names is particularly well handled (as in the Davies series) by ensuring that everyone (Maigret, his associates and all the cast members) invariably underplay such lines, so there is no sense of culture shock; thankfully, too, there are no cod ‘Franglais’ accents – just received pronunciation or all-purpose regional inflections.
In the final analysis, whichever actor played Maigret on screen — Simenon’s favourite, Rupert Davies aside — the character has been singularly lucky in the transition from page to moving image. And in whatever medium your first encounter with Maigret is, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.