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Judge Coméliau

by Murielle Wenger

[French original]

"As usual, Coméliau was losing his temper, his mustache quivering." (CON)

1. Coméliau before Maigret

The character Coméliau had already appeared, in his function as judge, in novels preceding the Maigret cycle, and thus before Simenon's work signed "Simenon". We find the judge mentioned for the first time in "Mademoiselle X", a novel signed Christian Brulls. The following comment is from a page at about this novel...

"In "L'autre univers de Simenon" [Simenon's other universe], Michel Lemoine reports somewhat mischievously that "Mademoiselle X" is the novel in which Simenon presents Judge Coméliau for the first time, even if he's still just a name. In charge of the investigation of the murder of a notary, cited three times with no other characteristics, this future enemy of Maigret is thus the first character recurring in the later novels which gushed from the pen of the novelist... and the subconscious of the creator. The anti-Maigret thus appeared in Simenon's work before Maigret himself; the judge crops up before the mender of destinies, which is not without meaning..."

Coméliau plays a part in four novels signed Georges Sim, "La femme qui tue" [The woman who kills], "En robe de mariée" [In a wedding dress], "L'homme qui tremble" [The man who shakes], and "L'épave" [The wreck].

We also note that Coméliau is present in the last of the "proto-Maigrets", The House of Anxiety. He is not yet the "private enemy" of Maigret that he will become later. On the contrary, he seems rather amiable toward the Chief Inspector... the only words he addresses to him at the beginning of the investigation are, "Of course, you will take charge of the case... I'll make the first reports and leave you free rein... What do you think?" and "Just let me know if there's anything new... With you on the case, I can relax!" Not yet any rivalry at all between the two men, the judge lets Maigret work as he pleases... even if this polite withdrawal of the judge doesn't seem to be appreciated at face value by the Chief Inspector, who "welcomes flattery with the amenity of a porcupine." Hmm! If Maigret had known what was coming in his future relations with the judge, perhaps he would have had a greater appreciation of Coméliau's amiability...

And finally, we see that this character of Coméliau is strongly enough present in Simenon's imagination for him to make him the recipient of the "Letter to my Judge" (a novel by Simenon written in 1946), that Dr. Alavoine, convicted for the murder of his mistress, writes to explain the motives that had pushed him to kill. And in this novel we learn that the judge's first name is Ernest, that he lives at 23 bis, Rue de Seine. A few other details are revealed as well... Coméliau was born in Caen, and married the daughter of a doctor; he's nearsighted and wears glasses, and in his chambers there's a cupboard containing an enamel basin (well, well...). And we learn that the first impression he gives to Alavoine is that of a man who is seeking to understand... Astonishing similarities between the judge and the image of Maigret....

2. Coméliau in the Fayard editions

Coméliau is present from the beginning of the official cycle... in LET, it's to him that Maigret shows the photos of young Pietr, and to him that he tells the story of Pietr's origins that he has reconstructed. Coméliau, in this novel, plays in a way "without intending to" the role of Maigret's confidante. Not yet a trace of any particular animosity between the two men, and Maigret not only smokes his pipe in the judge's chambers (which the judge would hardly have tolerated later on), but the Chief Inspector even feels "at home there". It must be mentioned that the judge's chambers included a stove, a more than attractive object for Maigret.... We note further that we learn in this novel that Coméliau wears gold-rimmed glasses, whose lenses he has a habit of endlessly polishing.

Coméliau returns in TET, where he takes a more important place in the novel. Little touches are added to his portrait... he has a carefully trimmed narrow mustache, he smokes cigarettes, he is thin, nervous, and hates complications. His relationship with Maigret becomes more complex... he oscillates between the trust he shows to the Chief Inspector, the irritation when he sees that the experiment of Heurtin's escape fails, and finally a certain contrition in the face of the "success" of Maigret, who has in spite of everything has discovered the truth. We also note that Coméliau's chambers have already lost the stove, replaced by the central heating that Maigret hates... which does not improve the relations between the two men....

In the Fayard cycle, we also meet Coméliau in NUI, a brief appearance in Ch. 1... "The interview between Maigret and the examining magistrate Coméliau, who had been assigned to the case, lasted 15 minutes. The judge, as it were, abandoned the case from the beginning." So much the better for Maigret, who could occupy himself peacefully – and alone - with the beautiful Else...

For the remainder of the Fayard cycle, Coméliau is – for the moment - shelved. Maigret will interact with other judges (see Maigret and the Judges). And there's no further trace of Coméliau in the Gallimard cycle, so we must await the first volumes from Presses de la Cité for the reappearance of the nervous little mustachioed judge...

3. Coméliau in the Presses de la Cité cycle

The first appearance of Coméliau in this cycle occurs in two stories, first in "Maigret's Pipe", where only his name is mentioned in the phrase, "when Judge Coméliau called", and then in "Death of a Nobody". Coméliau "returns by the back door" in the investigations of Maigret, to whom, in this story, he merely telephones to assign him the case of the murder of Tremblet. Thus the judge gives the Chief Inspector time to "reacquaint himself" with him. And Simenon himself must find pleasure in the character, and putting him back next to Maigret, since, in the first "Parisian" novel which follows this story, Coméliau will play an important role. Indeed, it's in MOR that we find the famous telephone scene of Maigret and the judge, where the Chief Inspector is at home with a sham cold. In this novel, the rapport between the two men already appears strained... The Director of the PJ tells Maigret, "You ought to see Coméliau though, or telephone him... He's pretty touchy... Maigret already knew that. "; and further, "Let's go see the old monkey! sighed Maigret, who'd never been able to stand Judge Coméliau." We also learn in this novel that Coméliau's brother-in-law was a Deputy, that Coméliau wore a stiff false collar, a dark tie, and an impeccable suit.

We find Coméliau next in BAN, where he remains fairly discreet... the Thouret case doesn't really interest him, for he has decided that it was an ordinary mugging, and he left Maigret to lead his investigation as he liked. We learn all the same a few details... The judge is "small, with brown hair, and a toothbrush mustache" (according to Schrameck) and Maigret enjoys putting on "a particularly suave voice" when he answers a phone call from Coméliau.

In JEU, a very brief mention of Coméliau's name – Maigret says simply at the end of the novel that he will call him.

In contrast, in COR, the judge has a much more important role... he is present from start to finish, and his relationship with Maigret is filled out in detail. It's there also that he receives for the first time the qualifier "private enemy" of Maigret, who describes him in a stroke as "the most conformist and complaining magistrate in the Prosecutor's Office". In the classification of judges made by Maigret (see Maigret and the Judges), he is certainly in the "pain-in-the-neck" group.. "Most of the Examining Magistrates were happy to leave matters in the hands of the police until they had finished their investigation. Coméliau, however, wanted to direct operations from the beginning of a case." He was an intelligent man, but "his intelligence was incapable of handling certain realities", as a result of his being a part of "the Establishment, with rigid principles". He is also "nit-picking, concerned with appearances, nervous about public opinion". The judge has a fear of complications, all the more so because his brother-in-law in politics is in the public eye. Furthermore, he mistrusts the less than "orthodox" methods of Maigret. We learn that he lives in an apartment across from the Luxembourg Gardens. And it's also in this novel that we find the scene in Coméliau's office where Maigret skillfully maneuvers to be able to smoke his pipe, since Coméliau has developed a phobia against tobacco (and maybe particularly Maigret's tobacco). His physical portrait also becomes more precise... "He was thin, nervous, with a brown mustache which must have been dyed, and the bearing of a cavaly officer", and he had "lively little eyes".

In the next novel, TEN; Coméliau is always there, always as "nervous and aggressive, hardly containing the indignation which made his little mustache quiver". On his side, Maigret allows himself to smoke in the judge's chambers... "Coméliau... stared at Maigret's pipe, which he'd never gotten used to. The Chief Inspector was, in fact, the only one who permitted himself to smoke in his chambers, and the judge regarded it as a sort of defiance."

In AMU, it's Janvier, in the absence of Maigret, who will do battle with Coméliau, and the magistrate does not show himself to be any more accommodating than ever... "Janvier had been landed with Judge Coméliau, who was certainly the most disagreeable magistrate to handle. Coméliau had a terror of the press. ... Fifty times, a hundred times in his career, Maigret had held out against him, sometimes risking his position. "Why don't you arrest him already?" barked the little judge with the pointed mustache... Janvier didn't have Maigret's patience, his stubborn or absent air when Coméliau flew into a rage."

Coméliau is mentioned again in SCR, as Maigret's "private enemy", as an example of the type of magistrate with whom Maigret often had falling outs "legendary at the Quai des Orfèvres". Coméliau intervened as the judge in charge of the Marton case, but - happily for Maigret - since Marton didn't die until the end of the novel, the two men didn't have much time to confront each other...

From the next novel, (TEM), Coméliau will only be invoked as a memory, for the changeover to the young judges had occurred (see Maigret and the Judges)... "His private enemy, as he chose to call him, Judge Coméliau, had retired and was now no more than an elderly gentleman who walked his dog in the morning, on the arm of a lady with bluish hair." In PAT, Maigret only mentions the judge's name, and the stormy relationship they'd had. In SEU, one mention of Coméliau, because he was involved with the time of the case of the murder of Nina Lassave.

In NAH also, the judge's name is mentioned in a phrase, "others also had disappeared with time, like Judge Coméliau, that the Chief Inspector had always called his private enemy, and whom he sometimes missed." What! If Maigret is sorry to have lost the chance to do battle with his private enemy...

In CON finally, Maigret tells of an old case in which Coméliau was involved. He explains to Pardon, "Coméliau isn't a bad man. They called him my private enemy, since we were often battling. It wasn't his fault, really. It was a result of his view of his role, of his obligation. In his eyes... he had to show himself as merciless towards anything that threatened the established social order. I don't believe he's ever known doubt." Later in the novel, Maigret again has a long reflection about the judge... "The judge did not act so out of personal animosity, and if Coméliau was always mistrustful of the Chief Inspector and his methods, it was more a result of the gap separating their points of view. And didn't that, in the end, come down to a question of social class? The magistrate remained, in an evolving world, a man in a fixed space. His grandfather had presided over the highest court, in Paris, and his father still sat in the Council of State... He was a man of his world, a slave of its way, its rules of life, its language. You would have thought that his daily experiences, at the Palais de Justice would have given him a different concept of humanity, but that wasn't the case, and it was invariably the point of view of his class that determined his decisions."

We can clearly see what separates the two men, antagonists physically (Coméliau, the nervous little judge, wasn't he the exact opposite of Maigret, the calm man with the imposing stature?), as well as psychologically... since Coméliau remained a slave to his class prejudices Maigret, for his part, plunged into each new case in what was for him a new world, crossing social barriers to search behind appearances for the "naked man", stripped of his artifices.

translation S. Trussel
Honolulu, December 2007

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