Maigret is one of the best-known French literary crime investigators, enjoying international fame and subject to many adaptations and tributes, films, radio series, comic strips, and more. The purpose of this Entry is to describe the books, both from the aspect of their content, and what the reader might get from these. We will also give a brief account of how the books inspired other works.
The series was written by Belgian author Georges Simenon (Liège 1903 – Lausanne 1989). The first Maigret novel, Pietr-le-Letton (Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett), was published in 1931 by popular editor Arthème Fayard, despite his initial lack of enthusiasm. Simenon was under contract with Fayard till 1934, when he wrote what he thought would be the last Maigret. However, success was such that he obtained a contract with Gallimard for a further six books (till 1944), following which he went to Presses de la cité till his retirement in 19721.
Most novels (although not all the earlier ones) have an identical structure: an eight-chapter book which can be read in a fairly short time. For Simenon, one should be able to read his books at one sitting, say during a single train journey, making it a quintessential roman de gare.
The eponymous character is French Commissaire2 Maigret, from the Police Judiciaire in Paris, famously located at 36 Quai des Orfèvres. Although he is never really described, a few trademark features are quite strongly associated with him: a heavy figure, he's always wearing a hat and smoking a pipe. He is often churlish and grumpy, though sometimes he just pretends to be when he feels this is expected of him.
Although he can be quite unrelenting at times, he is also a very human and compassionate person, who might feel sympathetic with the victim or even, occasionally, with the murderer. His motto is to understand, and not to judge.
He is also a very heavy drinker3. While some claim that this is a cultural trace of how much French people used to drink at the time the books were written, it seems more likely that it is rather a reflection of Simenon's own alcohol issue. Maigret's favourite drinks appear to be calvados, beer, brandy, and white wine. He doesn't appear to be very keen on high-brow stuff: somebody once offered him
a calvados so old, so excellent, that it made [him] thirst for something more vulgar and refreshing4.
One further, rather amusing feature of his drinking habit is that, when he starts an investigation with one kind of drink, he keeps drinking the same till the end. Of course, this is not so much a rule as a guideline, and he more often than not mixes whatever he feels like, stumbles upon, or is offered to him in the course of the investigation.
Some of the others
Mme Maigret. His wife, almost a picture-book housewife. Unobtrusive yet always present, she is very calm and understanding, never complains when her husband unexpectedly misses a meal or goes to work at the weekend. She seems to know always when she can ask him about the case he's working on or if it is better not to, and pampers him as much as possible. On occasions she gets involved in some cases, or makes a casual remark which turns out to help him understand the case.
The inspectors. A number of inspectors at the PJ can help Maigret investigate, but he seems to favour four of them: his oldest collaborator Brigadier Lucas, family man Janvier, young Lapointe, and Torrence, a sort of younger version of himself. Like drinks, Maigret tends to keep an inspector throughout an investigation, once he started with him.
Forensic and judges. Dr Paul works at the Morgue, Moers is a forensic laboratory expert. They usually have their say in the first half of the novel, shedding some light on more technical aspects of the crime. Maigret's investigation is supervised by a juge d'instruction5, requiring the commissaire to report more or less frequently in his office, and possibly urging him to be faster (when the murder has a strong public impact), or quieter (when influential persons appear to be involved). Maigret seems to find that the magistrates usually do not really understand the people and the background stories of the murder, focusing too much on expedient results instead.
The Pardons. Dr Pardon and his wife are friends of the Maigrets. They have dinner together every month, although they seldom finish it, as Dr Pardon often gets called away for some emergency. The two couples appear to be very similar, the textbook wives having an unofficial cooking contest and discussing their husbands' selfless lines of work which often require them to be away long hours for the benefit of the public. Several of Maigret's cases started at the Pardons. Often this would happen when the doctor is called at the side of some victim of a crime. Once it was because Pardon sent his friend, who wasn't feeling too well, to a health resort in Vichy, where the poor detective had to drink water throughout the novel!
Inspecteur Lognon, also known as Inspecteur Malgracieux6. A colleague from the district police of the 9th arrondissement, he reminds one of a well-known paranoid android. Lognon is actually a very successful detective, but quite unlucky. The character first appeared in a pre-Maigret novel, Monsieur la Souris (1937).
The general atmosphere of the Maigret books has some sort of indistinct touch to it, possibly reminiscent of fellow Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren's works. Things are not described with physical accuracy, but rather the impressions and character which emanates from them are given. In a few brief sentences, Simenon may describe a bar in such a way that readers would feel they had been there before.
The story usually takes place, naturally enough, in Paris. However, Simenon uses many tricks to make his character travel around France, occasionally abroad: several books take place after he retires, so that he is not bound to Paris anymore; he may go on vacation somewhere, or be sent away by his superiors to investigate some delicate case away from the French capital.
Simenon's depiction of society may remind one of Zola's depiction of France under the Second Empire. Often, the milieux that Maigret visits are popular, or well-off but with lower class origin. However they almost always turn out to be sordid, with greed and pettiness behind people's motivations. The motive for murdering is frequently money, occasionally accident, passion, revenge. Posh people appear to have the same compulsions and dark sides as everybody else.
The investigation goes on fairly quietly (a reason why Fayard wasn't too optimistic about the series' potential success). There are no frenzied chases, no rough fights, and Maigret hardly ever draws a gun. However, there are the occasions when he does so, and the commissaire is well aware that killing can be part of the job. This shows in his matter-of-fact, yet paternal attitude when he softly asks young Inspecteur Lapointe, who just shot someone:
Is it your first one?
Maigret novels are not traditional whodunnits. The killer may not even appear at all till late in the story. Solving the murder is not done by scientific examination of clues, or making an unforgiving, almost mathematical analysis of testimonies; nor does it follow a holistic or surrealistic approach. Maigret's procedure, or lack thereof, relies on his subtle understanding of human character. He tries to understand the victim and their background as deeply as if he had known them for years. His idea is that if you understand the victim's life and surroundings well enough, then the identity of the murderer will appear as self-evident. Maigret attempts to scratch the apparent ordinariness of those people around the victim, and reveal what it is which makes them special, different from others – why this one person would kill, while the other in a seemingly identical situation would not.
As this procedure takes some time, it is not surprising that the victim should be discovered in the first chapter. We summarise the plot after Maigret decides to take up the investigation:
Like a sponge, Maigret absorbs the atmosphere surrounding the victim's life, starting with no preconceived opinion. Basically, he starts with the body of a complete stranger and has to become very quickly as familiar with them as an old friend. In one instance, it seemed that most of the book was devoted to Maigret getting familiar with the victim, so that in the end, one specific inconspicuous piece of testimony didn't quite fit the character of the victim7 – thus arousing Maigret's suspicion.
Ruminating: Maigret gets grumpy and irritable. All the pieces of the puzzle must fall together while Maigret tries to discard the ones which do not fit. Much of the pondering is done in the bars around the district where the victim was found, or used to live. At this point, he still tries not to form too definite an opinion, more or less waiting for the inspiration. When asked by a journalist or a juge d'instruction, Do you think that... he invariably answers I do not think anything, indicating that he does not want to rush to conclusions – instead, the conclusions should rush to him.
Then a revelation occurs, and it is time to catch the murderer. As the commissaire usually doesn't have a proof in a strict sense, he usually has to catch the culprit red-handed, sometimes using cunning traps. Another frequent procedure is to arrest the suspect and get a confession by means of interrogation à la chansonnette8 – relentlessly asking the same questions until the suspect confesses.
Why do We Read the Books?
So, beside the thrills usually associated with any crime fiction, what is it which makes Maigret books popular? Are they really so universally and unconditionally admired?
First, the literary style itself is attractive. The novels are written in a straightforward fashion, making them a pleasant read. The hazy depictions of popular disctricts and bars in Paris, each with their own peculiarities and fauna, give the readers a sense of being there as if they were following the detective around.
The books also follow the flow of the century, rather than being set in a specific time. So, in the 1930s, Maigret's hat is a bowler; in the early 1960s he buys a television, and later a car, although he himself won't drive. It is unclear whether this is a deliberate choice by Simenon to describe the evolution of society, or rather if it just happens to be the way the books are written for the author's convenience. However, while ordinary society is described in the books, there are no references to political events or situations. This neutrality may well contribute to the timeless quality of the novels.
Furthermore, no attempt is made to look as modern as possible, using the latest in hi-tech devices and gadgets: people are ordinary, like the ones the readers could meet every day. If Maigret buys a TV, it is simply because more people in real life have one. One other point is also interesting to note. Although the series largely follows a chronological order, several early novels (mostly between 1934 and 1946) take place after Maigret has retired. However, Simenon does not try to imagine what society would look like in the future, and it is as if the retired Maigret was still living in the same year the novel is written.
Also a possible source of popularity is the gastronomy aspect of the books. Although many of Maigret's meals are, for practical reasons, simple sandwiches and beer, he enjoys whenever possible Mme Maigret's expert cooking skills. The dishes she prepares are French traditionals and seem taken straight from Alexandre Dumas' Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, with highlights such as calf liver à la bourgeoise, choucroute, baked fish in white wine, and Maigret's favourite blanquette de veau.
This being said, while one may appreciate Maigret's subtle knowledge of human character, it also means that his sudden understanding of who the criminal is may appear to simply pop out of nowhere. Along with the slow rythm of investigation and lack of action, these are reasons why readers may dislike the series, especially those who like spotting clues and trying to find the murderer themselves.
Also, this researcher found in one instance some slightly homophobic attitude from the fictional policemen, which seemed oddly out of place. This may however be attributed to the general attitude of society at that time towards the gay, caused more by ignorance than malice. One may similarly argue that Mme Maigret's portrayal is rather sexist; as this is not the case for all women in Simenon's work, this is probably rather a reflection of attitudes at the time of writing.
Simenon's own opinion of the series was that it was more of a second-rate literature, unlike his other production (his romans-romans, or 'hard novels') which he found deeper and more insightful. However, he wasn't being snotty about the Maigret series, which he seemed to like as well.
Related Work and Tributes
Maigret has been a source of many related works, whether adaptation, tributes or parodies. Here we mention but a few:
Numerous TV and cinema adaptations, from Jean Renoir's La nuit du Carrefour (1932) to the 1990s series with Bruno Cremer. Supposedly, actor Jean Richard, who portrayed Maigret in the 1970s, would get the occasional light-hearted Bonjour, Patron from the police guards at the entrance of the Quai des Orfèvres, even some time after the series was stopped. Other popular Maigret impersonators include Jean Gabin in France, Rupert Davies in the UK and Gino Cervi in Italy.
Other adaptations include radio series, audio books and comic strips.
Various pastiches, parodies or tributes. As an example, we mention Commissaire Bougret and Inspecteur Charolles, by French comics artist Marcel Gotlib. This is a series of two-page strips, where Bougret would eventually have to pick the murderer out of two suspects, and always get the right one but for strange and funny reasons9.
There is a Maigret statue in Delfzijl, near Groningen in the Netherlands. It was inaugurated in 1966 by Simenon himself, accompanied by various actors who had portrayed the character.
Maigret et l'Homme sans Passeport is a Mystery Puzzle. This is a little crime enigma together with a jigsaw puzzle with no model picture. The reader of the story must solve the riddle, and assembling the jigsaw reveals clues for additional help.
Find Out More
Several websites are devoted to the universe of Maigret. A few examples, which also illustrate the international popularity of the character, are given below.
A complete Maigret archive, in French and in English.
Brasserie Dauphine, named after a fictional bar close to the PJ headquarters and often patronised by Maigret. In Italian and English.
Quai des Orfèvres, everything about Simenon and Maigret. In German.
Les enquêtes du commissaire Maigret. This site focuses more on the 1970s series with Jean Richard, though it also has some more general background. In French.