In this article from our print edition, Peter Haining examines the legacy of Belgian author Georges Simenon’s classic fictional detective Jules Maigret.
“The Sherlock Holmes of France” is a description that has been given to Commissaire Jules Maigret, and in terms of worldwide fame and popularity he certainly deserves to be bracketed with Britain’s most famous detective. And the similarities do not end there. Just as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had done with Sherlock Holmes, Georges Simenon tried to dispose of his detective early in the series without fully appreciating his enormous appeal to readers, who promptly insisted on his return. Both authors have also, since their deaths, become very much overshadowed by the icons they created.
Maigret is one of a select band of literary figures recognizable by a single name, and has truly become a cult figure. The 84 novels and 18 short stories that Simenon wrote about him offer a fairly clear picture of le patron-as he is sometimes referred to-yet there are still enough enigmatic aspects about his character and mysterious elements in his cases to intrigue and fascinate successive generations of readers as the books and stories are reprinted. Over the years, Maigret has also become somewhat of a phenomenon. He has been the subject of scholarly theses, parodies and literary spoofs, the object of fan letters, and the inspiration for numerous films and television series. His likeness has been portrayed on postage stamps, his culinary tastes investigated by famous chefs, and his name taken in vain during many a sensational trial.
The man himself is rather unprepossessing yet wholly unforgettable. Maigret is 5 foot 11 inches tall and heavyset, his broad shoulders and stolid features reflective of his bourgeois origin. Early in his career as an inspector he wore a thick moustache, dressed in a well-cut suit and a thick winter coat with a velvet collar, and was rarely without that most British of accoutrements, a bowler hat. But when he became a commissaire, Maigret acknowledged changing police fashions by adopting a mackintosh and felt hat and shaving off his moustache.
Throughout his books, Simenon provides many interesting details about his detective. Maigret has exceptional eyesight, essential for any good detective. Because of the demands of his work, he has taught himself to be able to grab a short sleep almost anywhere. He is prone to claustrophobia, and undue exertion will sometimes leave him short of breath. Where food is concerned, Maigret is a gourmet, his favourite dishes including pintadeau en croute and fricandeau a l’oseille. Like Sherlock Holmes, Maigret loves a pipe. He keeps a rack of fifteen of them in his office at the Judiciare on the Quai des Orfèvres beside the Seine and is rarely seen without one clamped between his teeth, his hands thrust deep into his coat pockets.
Le Patron is well served by his three assistants, who patiently tolerate his occasional eccentricities while struggling to cope with his notoriously disorganized filing system. Pre-eminent among these men is le brave Lucas, a man described by Simenon as “chubby” who is actually able to pass himself off as Maigret if the situation demands. Completing the staff of the Judiciare are the devoted family man, Janvier, and the enthusiastic youngster, Lapointe.
Despite his seniority, the chief is never above joining his men in searching for clues, although he seems to prefer sending them off on enquiries while he blends unobtrusively into the environment where the crime was committed. Unlike most fictional detectives, Maigret does not use the process of reasoning while engaged in an investigation, but instead relies on his intuition and unique facilities of perception to study all those involved and eventually identify the killer. His sheer presence often exposes the guilty party or overwhelms the perpetrator into making a confession.
Maigret does not like driving in the crowded streets of Paris-he does not possess a licence, in fact-and prefers to take taxis and buses. He rarely uses a police car, despite the fact that one is always available to him. Though le patron is often kept away from his home for long periods of time when on an enquiry, he always looks forward to returning to his rather shabby but nonetheless comfortable apartment on the third floor of 130, Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, little more than a stone’s throw from the Place de la Bastille.
The great detective cherishes his private life with Madame Maigret. Although the couple’s relationship is undemonstrative, they are extremely close. Indeed, at times they seem almost to function as one in their complete understanding of each other and their separate needs. Madame Maigret’s Christian name is Louise, but her husband never refers to her as such-just as she never calls him Jules. She is an excellent cook, but has learned to be understanding when he fails to come home yet again because of his involvement in a case and the dish she has so carefully prepared goes to waste. The couple have no children, although there was a daughter who died in infancy, much to their sorrow.
When the Maigrets do get a rare evening together, they enjoy walking or going to the cinema. Maigret occasionally reads the novels of Dumas père, but never crime stories. He has little time for television either, although he will sometimes watch a Western or an amusing B-movie for pure relaxation. The couple seem to have only one pair of close friends, the Pardons, with whom they dine twice a month. Even these evenings are not wholly relaxing for the detective, as his friend is a doctor with whom he likes to discuss psychiatry and the human character.
The Maigret encountered in the first stories-which were published in the early 1930s-is about 45 years of age. In the last of the stories, published four decades later, he has just reached the mandatory retirement age of 55, though he shows no particular inclination to retire. Throughout all these years his greatest characteristics are shown to be his infinite patience and his compassion for people regardless of age, background, or the pain and suffering they put each other through. He single-mindedly pursues justice for one and all.
Rarely does Maigret express any views about himself or his methods of detection. Only in one novel, Maigret in Society (1960), is there a glimpse when Simenon writes of his character, “He did not take himself for a superman, did not consider himself infallible. On the contrary, it was with a certain humility that he began his investigations, including the simplest of them. He mistrusted evidence, hasty judgements. Patiently, he strove to understand, aware that the most apparent motives are not always the deepest ones.”
It is these very human qualities that make Maigret so appealing as a detective and as a man-qualities which are almost completely absent in the humourless Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s effete Hercule Poirot. He is, quite simply, a great-hearted human being, as Giles Cooper-who adapted a number of the stories for BBC TV in the 1960s explained in an interview on the BBC’s Radio Times:
“What makes this rather large and sometimes slow-moving detective so different? In the first place he is essentially a man of sympathy. With a brilliant insight into human nature, he is nevertheless often fallible. He possesses the approach to crime of a really first-class GP. His methods, too, are different from those of the usual police inspector. He much prefers calling on the person to be interviewed or interrogated to having him brought to his office. He goes, he looks, he smells, touches, senses, gets the feeling of the situation and the people he has to deal with. As a result he becomes inevitably involved in the action, suspense, danger, laughter-and he sees it all with the eyes of a great humanitarian.”
No great figure in detective fiction has ever come wholly from his creator’s imagination, of course, and Maigret is no exception to the rule. According to one popular tale, his prototype is supposed to have been an actual French detective, Marcel Guillaume, who died in 1963 at the age of 91. When, that same year, Simenon was asked if there was any truth to this legend he said he “could not remember” where his inspiration had come from. Simenon admitted, in another interview, that there might be something of his own father, Desire, in Maigret, adding: “When I wanted to create a sympathetic person who understood everything, that is to say Maigret, I gave him, without realising it, certain of my father’s characteristics.”
This is a view not altogether accepted by several of Simenon’s biographers. For example, Thomas Narcejac, the author’s longtime friend who wrote one of the first biographies, The Art of Simenon, in 1952 states: “Maigret represents an ideal. He stands for every aspect of strength, including a certain plebeian roughness. But he does to an extent represent Simenon; the pipe, the hands in the pockets, the wandering gaze and that indefinable air of power and refinement which shows a man’s calibre. In some details of his life and character, Maigret tends to become completely free of his creator. He has a civil status, a profession, habits and eccentricities, which give him a personal existence. But he sees and feels like Simenon. Hence a slight lack of unity and cohesion. He has a fictional truth as a civil servant and a human truth as a policeman. He is alternately character and author.”
The British biographer, Fenton Bresler, also detected these similarities, but in a subtler way, writing in his Mystery of Georges Simenon, published thirty years later: “Maigret is not Simenon in any simple, straightforward way, but I believe that over more than four decades of close identification with the same character, with whom he had considerable similarities anyway, Simenon found that Maigret became in psychological terms, his alter-ego; an essential part of his life and personality.”
When examining the facts of Georges Simenon’s own life in conjunction with the “life” he devised for his character there is further evidence to support the assertions of these authors. Simenon, for example, was born in Liege, Belgium, the son of an insurance clerk, while Maigret was born in nearby Saint-Fiacre in the Allier where his father, Evariste, was bailiff of the estate, each father holding a position of dignity guaranteed to earn respect for his son. Both author and character attended local Catholic schools, were choirboys, and briefly nursed ambitions to become doctors. Forgoing his dream, Simenon entered the “university of life” in Paris where, after a brief spell as a private secretary, he found his metier as an author churning out pulp novels for a local publisher. Maigret, on the other hand, pursued his ambition at the University of Nantes until he was forced to leave because of the death of his father. He then moved to Paris, where he lived in a cheap hotel until he was able to gain entry into the police force at the age of 22. Maigret began his life in the Judiciare patrolling the mean back streets of the capital-rubbing shoulders with petty criminals, gangsters, and prostitutes. Simenon had haunted the same places to collect raw material on which to base his stories. Their experiences provided each man with the unique insights into human nature which would inspire their highly successful careers.
There is one more possible influence on Simenon’s work which is usually overlooked or just dismissed: the Sherlock Holmes stories. The idea of the Baker Street sleuth lurking in the background seems improbable, but Simenon admitted to having read the Holmes canon when he was a young man and, in fact, having set out to create a detective who was precisely the opposite of Conan Doyle’s “reasoning machine.” What Simenon wanted to bring to life was a policeman who intuitively knew how human beings ticked and consequently understood how and why both killer and victim behaved as they did. In sparse, measured prose, this was to prove his unique achievement.
In 1929 Maigret appeared in his first exploit, Pietr-le-Letton (The Strange Case of Peter the Lett), written by Simenon while he was sailing on a yacht, The Ostrogoth, in Dutch waters. Curiously, he admitted years later that he was unable to visualize the face of his big, powerful policeman as he put pen to paper, saying, “I have never been sure what his face looks like-just the man and his presence,” he said.
The publisher to whom Simenon sent his manuscript, Artheme Fayard in Paris, had some difficulty initially in seeing the potential of the book-but agreed to take it on if the author would write several more Maigret stories so that they could be launched as a series. Quickly the young writer produced six more titles and the rest, as they say, is history. The books were to prove an extraordinary phenomenon of which Simenon could later claim, quite truthfully, “Since I thought of Maigret, I have never been poor.”
The success of le patron was not long confined to France or the printed page. In the years since that first Maigret story was accepted, Simenon’s novels and stories have been read by in excess of 500 million people all over the world and translated into two dozen languages. Three years after the appearance of Pietr-le-Lotton, the French actor Pierre Renoir became the first screen Maigret in La Nuit du Carrefour (The Crossroad Murders) (1932), which was based on a script by Simenon and the director Jean Renoir.
The popularity of this movie led to the detective’s shoes being filled by a string of actors of varying degrees of talent and ability including Albert Préjean and Charles Laughton in the forties; Herbert Berghof, Eli Wallach, and Jean Gabin in the fifties; and Rupert Davies in the classic BBC TV series in the sixties. Subsequently, Maigret was portrayed by an Italian (Gino Cervi) and a German (Heinz Ruhmann) during the sixties and a Russian (Boris Tenin) and a Japanese (Kinya Aikawa) during the seventies. More recently, two distinguished actors, Richard Harris (1988) and Michael Gambon (1992-93), have helped keep Simenon’s sleuth alive on the small screen in an endurance record probably matched only by Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.
It was the late Julian Symons who once observed that Maigret was “the archetypal fictional detective of the twentieth century.” The continued reprinting of the books and short stories about the Commissaire and their popularity with new generations of readers indicate that Maigret will continue to hold his special place in crime fiction throughout the twenty-first century.