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Francis Lacassin
La vraie naissance de Maigret
Editions du Rocher
pp 123-125
French original




This text, published in Le Jour of January 19, 1934, introduced the novel Maigret [Maigret Returns], which was to appear serially in that daily. It was not reproduced in the volume published some months later by Fayard. Simenon believed he had finished the Maigret series in April 1933, with L'Écluse n° 1 [The Lock at Charenton], so thinking he had gotten rid of his character, he shows him in retirement in this serial published in Le Jour.

When, during rehearsals for Hernani, Victor Hugo, worn out by the attitude of Mlle Mars, removed her coldly from the role of Doņa Sol, the famous actress asked, "But then to whom will you give it?" "To anyone," answered Hugo calmly. "To Mlle Despréaux, for example. She won't have your talent. But she is young, and she is pretty. Of the three conditions the role requires, she possesses two."

I think that it is much the same story for many things, among them, the detective novel. Or, rather, concerning the detective novel, the situation is precisely the opposite of that of Mlle Despréaux. They all have talent! And it is actually the two other conditions which are unfulfilled: to know the police and to know the killers.

What would we say of an author who would call his works "peasant novels" but who, never having left the 18th arrondissement, would only put on stage fantasy farmers? Or of one who, writing some military novel, would confuse ranks and mistake the details of barracks life? Or of another who would, from his village in the Garonne or the Rhone, pretend to bring us behind the scenes of Parisian journalism and the ways of the great literary critics?

But how many are there, among detective writers, who have actually met a murderer, or a police inspector, or have closely followed an investigation from start to finish? I can answer without hesitation — none! Because, were that necessary, there would not be any more detective novels.

Speak unreasonably of a woodworker, for example, or of a cod fisherman: at least one critic out of ten will perceive your ignorance and proclaim it loudly, and you will receive a hundred nasty letters from woodworkers or fishermen.

No danger of this kind with murderers, who don't have the imprudence to be indignant. Nor with policemen, who don't read. And that is why, no doubt, the same critics, so stern on issues of grammar, historical dates, geography, or simple psychological realism when it is about "plain" novels, speak glowingly every week about a half-dozen detective novels.

There is already a state of mind. There are already clichés: the inspector who smokes a pipe, the hustling journalist who smokes Marylands and the lover of luxury who collects jade and smokes some oriental tobacco. Clichés also on the murderer's side: the Chinese, the old maniac, the troubling Soviet delegate, the cynical physician and the bigamous Englishman who had lived in the Indies. Clichés of scene. Clichés of action. What is the point of mentioning them — you know them better than I.

And yet, you will say, man's death is the basis for all literary works, or nearly; it is the ancient or classic tragedy, the romantic drama or the novel of today. What more beautiful theme, then, than a man's death, knowingly provoked by another! And the sufferings of that one, using cunning to escape his punishment!

It is imposing. Or rather it was imposing with Hugo, who replaced detectives with the eye of God on Cain's track. But killers are not Cain. They are hooligans, degenerates, or even poor distraught men who have made the fatal gesture. God's eye, in reality, is represented by civil servants who do what they can, like all civil servants.

It is necessary to choose among three conditions: art on the one hand, and true criminals and true policemen on the other. That is, to write a book which makes all those who actually know about revolvers and surveillance laugh, or to write a book that looks like the Memoirs of an old police commissioner.

I chose. When, after about twenty novels, I perceived that I leaned rather more toward the side of God's eye than that of the Quai des Orfèvres, I stopped and went on to other exercises. I got piles of letters. People were angry with me. Le Jour asked me to revive Maigret for a few weeks. I swore, as always, that it was the last time!

And I have tried to tell a police story — a novel, in spite of everything — that could be read out loud before an inspector of the P.J. without him laughing the buttons off his vest.

< translation by Stephen Trussel >