I’ve always found Police Inspector Jules Maigret to be a comfortable, comforting specimen of sleuth—comfortable in his own skin, comforting in his routines. Spawned in 1931 by Belgium-born author Georges Simenon, the much-chronicled Maigret plied his trade in the streets of Paris for a hundred and three adventures (75 novels and 23 short stories, with 54 made into films) spanning over four decades. In the course of these, while inevitably zeroing in on the culprit-du-jour, the good inspector always seemed to find multiple occasions to slip into the nearest bar or bistro for a small beer or wine or apéritif and whatever pub fare was at hand. I’m not sure what the official departmental policy was on such visits, but, judging by his success rate, they served the inspector in good stead. Then there were his pipes. He generally kept two or three knocking about in his coat pocket plus another handful in his office, his favorite being a large briar number, which he referred to as his “good old pipe.” This is part of Maigret’s charm for me—the fact that while getting the job done, he never failed to avail himself of life’s little comforts.
Maigret is nothing if not solid. Perhaps the term middle-of-the-road might be slapped on him, but as a virtue rather than a slur. Simenon presents him as a man of average height, a bit bulky—certainly he could lose a few pounds— but lacking the extravagant obesity of, say, a Nero Wolfe. In terms of romance, Maigret isn’t a ladies man in the mode of various slick P.I.s; but neither is he a detached asexual a la Sherlock Holmes. No, the inspector is a calmly, yet happily married fellow with a pleasant, accepting wife. Maigret is not as cantankerous as Wolfe, aloof as Holmes, or egocentric as Hercule Poirot. Sure, at times he can be grumpy, distracted, or self-absorbed; but all within the common range of human characteristics.
Maigret’s professional position is that of Commissaire in The Brigade Criminelle—an organization which sounds no less colorful than the Foreign Legion, the Green Berets, or the Justice League of America. Flashy title aside, Maigret conducts his cases in a steady, businesslike manner. He’s a workman more than a mastermind, gathering his facts carefully, sifting, sorting, pondering, and then arriving at the sensible solution—even if the crime in question seems anything but sensible. In carrying out his investigation, Maigret is the ultimate professional, though I know of at least one occasion where he punched out an already captured killer, a surprising move since he’s generally not the scrappy, two-fisted type.
If Maigret is an example of steadfastness and simplicity, his creator was something else entirely. Without getting into the realms of biography (which would include much globe-hopping, a sketchy wartime history, and copious amounts of alcohol), a few numerical references may give a sense of the man. Try on these three: 300 pipes in his private collection; 500 books written in his lifetime; 10,000 different women slept with. Now, while the pipes could be verified by a hand count, his sexual claims would certainly be tougher to prove. Simenon considered himself a feminist—and not a debaucher—but I’ll leave that debate to braver souls.
As for the half a thousand books, that most likely is an accurate estimate, Simenon’s output having been by no means limited to his Maigret tales. An exact bibliography is hard to nail down, for in addition to the writings under his own name, he reportedly employed seventeen different pseudonyms, many of which he used for pulp novels churned out at a maniacal pace. Simenon described composing 60 to 80 pages a day while producing these pulps. I’m not sure which is more mind-numbing and unbelievable—that claim or the carnal one.
Besides being prolific in output and skilled in plot structure, Simenon was also a downright lovely stylist. Take this passage from Maigret and the Toy Village describing the book’s murder victim:
One morning, just like any other, with the soft watercolors of sky and landscape all about him, he was gardening, with his straw hat on his head, pricking out his harmless tomato shoots, already seeing them in his mind’s eye, perhaps, laden with heavy red fruit, their thin skins splitting in the sunshine, and then, a few minutes later, he was lying dead in his bedroom, which was filled with the wholesome rural smell of polish.
Kind of beautiful, and all in one sentence, to boot. Now, mind you, that’s a translation, since Simenon wrote all his mysteries in French; but the easy poetry of the writing conveys well. In describing his approach to his craft, he once said,
I write “It rains”: you will not find in my books drops of water that transform themselves into pearls … I want nothing that resembles literature … For me Literature with a capital 'L' is rubbish.
That said, an argument could be made that Simenon’s raindrops had a touch of pearl to them.
Another appeal of Simenon’s mysteries for me are the slenderness of the volumes. The Maigret paperbacks on my bookshelf are each no more than two hundred pages in length. This seems to fit nicely with the straightforward, efficient nature of the sleuth himself. There’s something exceedingly pleasant about being able to snatch down a book and consume it in a couple tidy sittings. As pleasant, say, as sneaking into a little bistro down some shadowy Parisian backstreet, midway through your hunt for an elusive criminal, to fortify yourself with a good sandwich and a nice glass of beer or cognac. All without regret—for a successful outcome is pretty much guaranteed.
All images via Steve Trussel’s incredibly comprensive site Trussel.com, which includes a vast cache of all things Maigret. It’s a must-visit for Simenon fans!
Michael Nethercott is a playwright and writer of traditional mysteries whose O’Nelligan and Plunkett tales appear periodically in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His first novel featuring this 1950s detective duo, The Séance Society, will be released in October, 2013 by St. Martin’s Press.