from the Detective Story to
the Crime Novel: A History
Faber and Faber Ltd., 1972
Penguin Books, 1974, 1975 p 150-154
(and as "Mortal Consequences: A History
from the Detective Story to the Crime
Novel" 1972 1st U.S.)
Julian Symons: Simenon and Maigret
The case of Georges Simenon (1903- ) requires a separate chapter. He is the only European crime writer (if we regard Britain as an offshore island) to have become famous outside his own country since Gaston Leroux and Maurice Leblanc. He is certainly much more than a crime writer, and is regarded by his greatest admirers as a novelist comparable with Balzac. He wrote for many years an average of six short novels a year, books so varied in subject, setting and characterization that nobody cold possibly call them production-line articles. Yet in spite of this variation his work is so even in tone and manner that there is not much question of talking about an early or a late style. What is attempted here is not an estimate of Simenon's stature as a novelist but an assessment of the Maigret stories, which number seventy-odd at present. Some of his other books are much more important, but most of them do not come within the canon of the crime story, even though they are often concerned with criminal matters. A book like L'homme qui regardait passer les Trains (The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By) (1942) is very much a study in character first, a crime story second, even though Sergeant Lucas from the Maigret stories has strayed into it and become a Superintendent.
The first thing an English reader is likely to notice about the Maigret saga is the contrast between the realism of the characterization and background and the sensationalism of the plots. In Le Fou de Bergerac (1932), translated as The Madman of Bergerac (1940), Maigret dives out of a train after a man who has occupied the upper bunk in his sleeping berth, is shot by him, taken to the little town of Bergerac, and spends the rest of the story recuperating in an hotel room and trying to discover the apparent madman who has killed two women by use of a long needle stuck through the heart, and has attacked a third. Maigret knows that the murderer is one of the people who visited his hotel room, because he has carelessly dropped his railway ticket in the passage outside. The origins of the crime prove to lie far back in the past, in an extraordinary tale revealed casually at the end of the book about a doctor working in an Algiers hospital who discovers that his villainous father is there, and has been condemned to death for his crimes. The doctor saves his, father by burning down part of the hospital and substituting another body for that of his father. This doctor later establishes himself as a respectable figure in Bergerac. The 'madman' is in fact the father; now a psychopath, who had paid unwelcome visits to his son, murdering a woman each time. After the second of these murders the doctor kills his own father and empties his pockets of identificatory material, but carelessly drops the railway ticket outside Maigret's door.
Why should a plot of Simenon's be singled out for its improbability, it may be asked? What is a touch of arson, a body-substitution, a psychopath who stabs with needles, compared to a locked room? One is disconcerted by things in Simenon that can be taken for granted in John Dickson Carr, just because Simenon's characters are convincing as real men and women. If they were cardboard cut-outs one would mind much less what sort of conduct was attributed to them. The art of Simenon lies in making the implausible acceptable. Consider the opening of another early story, Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien of 1931 (Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets), in which Maigret follows a man over France and to the Dutch-German border simply because he sees him putting a large sum of money into an envelope and posting it. The man is shabby, and carries a cheap fibre suitcase, so what is he doing with so much money? Maigret manages to buy an identical case which he stuffs with newspaper, exchanges the cases at a railway station, and is in the next hotel room when the man shoots himself after discovering the exchange. Looked at in any reasonable light the detective's behaviour is highly improbable. The astonishing thing is that in reading all this is made acceptable, and both Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien and Le Fou de Bergerac are extremely interesting and convincing stories. In the latter, there are bits of characteristic deadpan humour in the original police belief that Maigret is himself the man they are looking for, the relationship between the doctor who has something to hide, his wife and his mistress is sketched with easy mastery, and the feeling of a French provincial town as sensed, although not seen, by Maigret while he fidgets in bed is perfectly done. This early Maigret is a typical story, similar in its merits and weaknesses to others. The settings never fail, giving always an impression of personal involvement with Paris or Antibes, a shop by the Belgian frontier or a Guinguette by the Seine. The weather is described with such vigour and pleasure that it is, again, as though the writer were actually soaking up the rain or sun that he is writing about. Simenon's susceptibility to physical experience of this kind is greater than that of any other contemporary novelist. And the characters grow in this thick soil of sensuous experience, they fit perfectly into sleazy or criminal city life, a small town's close provincialism or the uneasy potential violence of a port. They take colour and conviction from their surroundings, and there seems absolutely no limit to the kinds of people Simenon knows, and into whose personalities he can enter. Well, perhaps there is. Has he produced a convincing Englishman?
The surroundings and the weather and the people are filtered to us always through the personality of Maigret. When we get a powerful sense of holiday life in Liberty Bar (1932) it is because Maigret has this feeling, when in Maigret et le vieille dame (1953 in France, 1958 in Britain as Maigret and the Old Lady) Valentine Besson is presented as a charming old lady, this is because: she is being shown through Maigret's eyes. I do not think it has been noticed that never in these stories does Simenon stand back and write in the third person. Everything that happens is as Maigret sees it, or as it is told to him. He really is the stories, in a way that is not true of any other detective. As John Raymond has said in his study of Simenon, `each case is less a problem to resolve than a drama to be understood, with Maigret himself playing each part'. Obviously some of the stories are better than others, and my own feeling is that the early tales, which often find Maigret mixed up with professional criminals, are preferable to the sometimes ramblingly philosophical books of recent years, but the important thing is Maigret himself. We know him better, in the sense of knowing him all round, than we know any other detective, certainly better than we know Sherlock Holmes.
If a single story had to be chosen to represent the finest qualities of the Maigret novels without any of their defects, it might be Mon Ami Maigret (published 1949 in France, 1956 in Britain as My Friend Maigret). Here he takes the chance to get away from rainy Paris to the heat-soaked island of Porquerolles in the Midi. An old crook has been murdered, it is thought because he boasted that Maigret was his friend. Accompanied by a Scotland Yard detective who has come to study Maigret's methods (but as Maigret says, he has no methods) he goes to Porquerolles and there shows his gift for absorbing like a sponge the nature of the people who live on the island, and concealing behind his apparently sluggish enjoyment of the local food and drink the capacity for interpreting behaviour which is his greatest detectival asset. The crime proves to be a product of that total nihilistic rejection by some of the young of any standard of behaviour which Simenon was contemplating long before the days of student revolt, and there is some fine characterization. The crook's former girl friend, who was once helped by Maigret and is now the madame of a brothel, is particularly good. The Scotland Yard man is merely sketched, but Maigret's uneasiness in his presence provides some passages of unstrained comedy. There are no coincidences, no improbabilities. This is certainly one of the half-dozen best Maigret stories.
Our knowledge of Maigret in the accounts of his cases is supplemented by Les Mémoires de Maigret (1950) - in Britain Maigret's Memoirs (1963). This very witty book tells us not only of the detective's childhood, courtship and early career in the Paris police, but also of his slight resentment of the simplifications made by Simenon in writing about him. The author, it seems, at first took some liberties and presented what was almost a caricature of the real Maigret, who very rarely wore a bowler hat and does not remember `the famous overcoat with the velvet collar' of the early stories, although he admits that he may at one time have possessed it. Such a piece of writing, at once plausibly extending the myth of Maigret and stressing its artificiality, is a world. away from the tediums of Holmesiana. But mostly, of course, Maigret comes to us through the various aspects of his personality shown to us in the cases, and this is not just a matter of a few obvious symbols like a pipe and a liking for aperitif;.
This son of a bailiff is never at ease with aristocrats, or for that matter with politicians, as he is with children, criminals and bourgeois of the lower class, and with professional men like doctors and solicitors. There are certain kinds of people about whom his understanding is limited, artists, scientists, eccentrics generally. His instinctive respect for, but also distrust of, the rich is shown in L'Affaire Saint-Fiacre (1933), in Britain The Saint-Fiacre Affair (1940). If he solves the cases in which such people are mixed up, it is through his gift of empathy, combined with the sudden moments of instinctive understanding that come to him. The personage created by Simenon, through stroke after stroke in book after book, has a plodding energy and endless patience. He is not of great intellectual stature, but has flashes of what can only be called artistic penetration, through which he understands ways of life alien to his own. We do not know how he votes, but are sure that it will always be for stability rather than for change. We do not know his sexual habits, but they will certainly not be markedly unusual. Maigret is a typical bourgeois, but with a breadth of sympathy that most bourgeois lack. He is one of the most completely realized characters in all modern faction. It is partly because he already existed fully as a person that he has been shown so successfully on the TV screen.
The Maigret stories stand quite on their own in crime fiction, bearing little relation to most of the other work done in the field. (Simenon is not much interested in crime stories, and has read few of them.) The bases of the stories are often slight, almost anecdotal. There are no great feats of ratiocination in them, and the problems they present are human as much as they are criminal. The ambience of the stories is wonderfully real, the characters are true and often memorable, yet we are not often emotionally moved by them. Maigret's detached sympathy becomes our own, and like him we do not care to dig too deeply into the roots of crime, we are ready to move on to another case. Simenon is an undoubted master of the crime story, but his mastery rests primarily in the creation of Jules Maigret.
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