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Georges Simenon (1903-1989), one of Belgium’s most famous writers, published hundreds of novels and short stories and wrote 60 to 80 pages a day. What made Simenon stand out, however, was his ‘Maigret’ collection. The character of Inspector Jules Maigret, a French detective, appears in 75 full length novels and 28 short stories, and is one of Belgium’s most successful exports. We explore 10 must-reads from the ‘Maigret’ collection.
A man’s dismembered body is found In the Saint-Martin Canal. Close to the scene, Maigret meets the taciturn owner of a cafe, Aline Calas, and wonders if the body in the canal was that of her husband. As usual, Maigret’s instincts are correct. Compelled to run the investigation further but with time on his hands as he’s already solved the case, Maigret starts digging into the past of everyone who is concerned. Unlike most detective fictions where finding the solution is central to the story, this novel explores the different motives that can lead to committing a crime. Here lies a rationale of self-hatred behind the actions whereby you can hurt and mortify those who are closest to you. Simenon, through Maigret, desperately attempts to figure out real meanings and ambitions, believing that understanding can lead to forgiveness and forgiveness will reduce the drive to commit a crime.
Maigret et le Corps sans Tete | © Courtesy of Presses de la Cité
Xavier Marton, the head of the toy department at the Grands Magasins du Louvre,, pays a visit to Inspector Maigret as he believes his wife has intentions of poisoning him. A couple of hours later, it is the wife, Gisèle, who comes to see Maigret to clarify her point of view, as she believes her husband to be suffering from delusions. But then Maigret finds out that Xavier is in love with his wife’s sister, Jenny, who lives with them. Over tea, Xavier accidentally drank the cup that was meant to be for his wife, costing him his life. The novel’s story reveals a strange relationship between the wife, the sister and the husband and is a penetrating account of a marital union gone bad. It builds up on the mental worlds and illusions of both husband and wife that led to the point of extreme destruction.
This 1930 novel marks the transition point for Simenon from writing popular novels under pseudonyms to becoming a recognised writer. His main publisher, Fayard, was unsure about this book at first, doubting it would be appealing to the general public. Eventually, they succeeded in reaching a compromise that required Simenon to publish more of these ‘different’ novels at the rhythm of one per month. In this first ‘Maigret’ novel, the detective pursues his adversary, Pietr the Latvian, a villain who, following Interpol, was spotted several times on a train heading from Gare du Nord to Bremen. At the train’s arrival, however, a dead body, similar to Pietr’s, was found in the toilets with a bullet hole in the chest. But a couple of hours later, a very classy Pietr wearing a suit was spotted in the luxurious hotel ‘Majestic’. This novel makes you travel back to pre-war Paris and reveals its darkness in a profound and disturbing manner.
In Maigret Se Défend,Inspector Maigret is accused for the first time since the start of his career. The charge against him was of compromising a young girl by getting her drunk in a bar, taking her back to his hotel room, undressing her, but ultimately not doing anything, or being ‘unable’ to. Maigret is then advised to resign and is forbidden to conduct any interviews. However, understanding that someone is out to get him, Maigret decides to take on the case to prove the world that he is innocent. The reader supports Maigret all along the way in his fight to find out who could be at the origin of wishing his failure. Once again, Simenon succeeds in conveying Maigret’s emotions and processes of thought with tact. His character manages pulling off being emotional but also being cool at the same time, and the accuracy and depth of the descriptions of both places and people are simply mesmerising.
Together with Inspector Pyke, a Scotland Yard detective who had joined Inspector Maigret to study his methods, Maigret travels to the Midi, to the Porquerolles island to start investigating the recent murder of Marcellin, a man who claimed to be his friend. In fact, the man himself was a criminal who was dating a prostitute previously known to Maigret. But Mon Ami Maigret is as much about Maigret himself as it is about crime and investigation. Above all, we get to know more about the character of Maigret but also about cultural tensions. Differences are observed; between city and island life, between foreign and French tourists, and funnily between the lack of sensibilities of the police in France when compared to the English.
On holiday in Les Sables-d’Olonne, Mme Maigret falls sick and has to head to the hospital. Meanwhile, Inspector Maigret visits cafes, watches bridge games and pays regular visits to his wife. But then, at the hospital, he receives an odd note and learns that the patient in question, who happened to be a young girl he had watched playing bridge, had been brought there following an ‘accident’ and had recently died. We then embark on a journey with Maigret to find justice for the young victim. Simenon’s prose remains precise and surprising at times. Through the character of Maigret, important thematics of life such as self consciousness, and class tensions become more meaningful and clear.
Near the city of La Rochelle, in Saint-André-sur-Mer, a schoolmaster is accused of shooting the ex-postmistress as she was looking out of her window. Many people openly disliked her in the village but the schoolmaster was viewed as the main suspect. He claims to be innocent and Maigret goes out there to investigate the crime further. In this novel, like always, it is the character of Inspector Maigret who makes the book, and not the crime itself. Simenon was a genius in creating a multi-faceted man to be discovered with each new book of the collection. Within the novel, Maigret evolves as a real person would and not as a funny caricature like it is more commonly the case with other detectives in extensive collections.
No more than 10 days after a dentist was arrested in Rue des Acacias, Inspector Maigret returns to the same spot to investigate the murder of Palmari, a criminal he suspected to have acted as the mastermind behind jewellery robberies over the 20 years he had known him. As the investigation advances, Simenon guides the readers through a couple of case histories. Fear, which results in violence and crimes, is a central element to the novel. Maigret tries to understand this fear which drives the main suspects in a non judgmental, and compassionate way, thereby understanding motives. Maigret is strong in listening to his intuition, operating in a manner that very few policeman would actually admit to doing.
At 4AM, a young woman wandering around the cobblestoned streets of Montmartre with an unsteady gait and wearing smudged lipstick arrived at the police station rue de la Rochefoucault insisting that she held precious information. However, an hour later, she denied everything. Two stranglings and a corpse later, Maigret is deep in an underworld of eroticism and lust. This mysterious book is not marked with blood and guts but with subtleness, wit and even joie de vivre. Simenon’s novel is a psychological one where motivations are at the basis of the subject’s identities.
Simenon accurately manages to describe an off-beat lawyer’s family, and simultaneously inserts Maigret into high society. The crime revolves around Article 64 of the French penal code, which states ‘there is no crime or misdemeanour if the accused was in a state of dementia at the time of the act, or if he was driven to it by an irresistible impulse.’ It is a fine story of suspense, even though the criminal is made obvious quite rapidly.Simenon himself is very compassionate and believes that there is no guilt in reacting to our surroundings in ways that we cannot fully control. In this novel, Simenon also explores how a higher social status could lead to the inhibition of humane feelings.