Maigret: Literature’s Enduring Detective

October 8, 2021

By Julia Hardwick

Of all the detectives who have interrogated their way through literature, Georges Simenon’s Maigret is one of the most enduring, intriguing, seductive and yet ordinary. His ordinariness is one of his charms; we can easily relate to the character who does not want to accept promotion because it will take him away from his beloved streets, bars and characters of Paris. Who would want to relinquish those beers in the Brasserie Dauphine, the calvados at the bar, or the andouillette (sausage filled with chitterlings) for lunch? In a world before mobile phones, social media and algorithms, Maigret is master of the dark arts of observation, deduction and intuition. His understanding of human nature is equal to the characters created by Zola, Balzac or Tolstoy. Parisian thieves and murderers may think they can outwit him, but his dogged determination always prevails. When immersed in a case he is moody, preoccupied and gloomy, but carefully cajoled and supported by the devoted Madame Maigret who always knows when he will be home for lunch. She puts up with his long silences and knows when a case is going badly:

‘He seldom talked to her about cases in progress and she usually learned about them more from the newspapers and the radio than through her husband.’ (Maigret Hesitates: 1968, p.32).

This is rather a traditional marriage, with Mme. Maigret nurturing and supporting her husband’s career, but there is also the feeling of a strong partnership. They may be unhappy at being childless, but they are clearly happy with each other whether they are dining at home on the Boulevard Richard Lenoir or enjoying a Spring evening on the Champs Élysées. Along with Lucas, Janvier and Lapointe, Mme. Maigret is part of the fabric of Maigret’s world, giving us insight into his private universe. The relationship presents an ideal and is in stark contrast to Simenon’s own complex romantic attachments.

The other major character in the Maigret novels, is Paris itself. We can appreciate Maigret’s location and wanderings even more when travel has become problematic. He sends out for beer and sandwiches on a regular basis from the Brasserie Dauphine (based on the restaurant Aux Trois Marche on the rue de Harlay); he drops in for an aperitif or a calvados at a convenient bar and will always be guaranteed a good lunch at many small cafes, where the proprietor will greet him as an old friend, give him his favourite window seat and one of his favourite dishes: pintadeau en croûte or fricandeau à l’oseille.

Maigret is equally at home in the opulent apartments of the Palais Royale, or the nightclubs of Monmatre. His perambulations around the environs of a crime, give him both time to ruminate and a feel for the locations inhabited by victims and perpetrators.

So we have the vicarious pleasure of seeing beyond the Quai des Orfèvres into Pigalle, or the homes on Canal Saint Martin. These excursions are often accompanied by evocative descriptions of the weather; Spring is just beginning to caress the boulevards, or August is so hot Maigret needs more beer:

‘It was six thirty in the evening, and when the rain started it did not obscure the sun, already red above the rooftops. The sky remained ablaze, the windows shimmering with reflected light, and only a single pearl-grey cloud, slightly darker at the centre and glowing at its edges, floated over the streets, as light as a balloon.’ (Maigret’s Secret: 1959, p.79).

Simenon’s economical style is like a literary equivalent of Toulouse Lautrec. Both are masters of street life and disreputable haunts, expressed with an economy of line that conjures up character and context with consummate ease.

For language learners, the Maigret novels provide straightforward, uncomplicated French and are highly addictive. Fortunately there are seventy-five Maigret novels and twenty-eight short stories, written between 1931 and 1972.

So, extend your enjoyment of the masterful performances of Rupert Davis by reading the books, as good as a sojourn au bord de la Seine.

References:

Downey,T. 2016: Pipe Dreams: On the Trail of Maigret’s Paris: Guardian: 17/04/2016.

Haining, P. 2015: The Great Detectives: Maigret: Strand Magazine: 05/03/2015.

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