|MD, March 1969 - pp 193-199: Great Detectives: 1|
|The late physician-author Dr. Somerset Maugham once said the reason so many millions of people read detective stories is that in this form of fiction they can be sure of finding a novel that tells a story. And another famous English author, Philip Guedalla, noted that the detective story is "the sport of noble minds."
Over the decades some fictional detectives have become famous, and in the reader's mind they are real people. Example: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are indubitably and indestructibly real to members of the Baker Street Irregulars. In this issue MD launches a new series about famous fictional detectives, beginning with Inspector Maigret (created by Georges Simenon), who started out to be a physician and ended by being one of the most famous detectives in the world.
[This article contains at least 24 references to Maigret cases without specifically identifying them by title. How many can you identify? Following each of the case descriptions, I've added a link to my list of "answers". ST]
In a dusty office overlooking the Seine a great bear of a man sits puffing his pipe, asking slow questions, never raising his voice. He looks dull, torpid, and sometimes he seems to doze. The office becomes blue with pipe smoke, the brasserie across the Place Dauphine sends up innumerable bottles of beer, the hours pass, until at last the suspect bows to inexorable psychologic truth and chief inspector Maigret has solved another case.
The French police are disciples of Alphonse Bertillon and celebrated for their criminologic techniques. But paradoxically, the star performer of this most scientific police department is a nonscientific genius of intuitive detection.
Many of the details of Maigret's life were published in his memoirs. He revealed how around 1927 he met a writer introduced to him as Georges Sim1 who wrote accounts of a great number of Maigret's cases, which made him world famous, and encouraged him to write his autobiography.
BOY AND MANJules-Amédée François Maigret is a massive man, an inch under six feet tall and weighing 200 lb. His fleshy face seems to have been modeled out of clay by a vigorous thumb; his eyes are sometimes small and bright, sometimes large and vacant. His intimates warn that he is most dangerous when he looks most stupid.
Paris is his province but he was born in the country near Moulins, a historic town in central France, once the heart of the duchy of Bourbon. His father was the manager of an estate of 7500 acres that included the chateau and 26 farms; the family lived in a house next to the chateau.
Maigret's life was profoundly influenced by Dr. Gadelle, country physician and friend of his father. He decided to become a doctor, and for two years he studied medicine. When his father suddenly died of pleurisy he was forced to give up his studies and look for a job. He went to Paris, where a police official living in the same small hotel befriended him. The young Maigret, fascinated by the dark mysteries of human character, thought he would like to become a "doctor of destinies," if not of medicine. The detection of crime seemed the path to such a profession, and when his new friend offered the opportunity he accepted a job on the Paris police force.
He served his plainclothes apprenticeship catching shoplifters with the department store squad and fugitives with the railway station squad, spotting pickpockets with the public highways squad, rounding up prostitutes and assorted shady characters with the vice and hotels squads. He came to know Paris from end to end and in all its moods, tramped its streets in rain and snow in his velvet-collared overcoat and bowler hat sat in limpid sunshine in crowded sidewalk cafes when the chestnut trees were in bloom and his feet hurt in the new shoes he buys each year on the first spring day.
THE SCENEMaigret is at home along the quays and canals, in workmen's bistros and slum rooming houses rank with the odors of slop pails. He has a special feeling for the helpless and vulnerable in the big city, such as a murdered girl found on the sidewalk, wearing a cheap rented evening gown. Maigret knew the barman was lying when he said she had been drinking martinis while waiting for someone in his bar: such a girl did not drink martinis. [case 1]
Similarly he understood the striptease dancer of a shabby Montmartre boîte, a luscious wanton who drank too much and yet kept her little flat immaculate like a respectable bourgeois housewife. She tried to warn the police that some countess was going to be murdered for her jewels and they did not take her seriously. Maigret would have believed her, even before she was strangled for attempting to forestall the murder. [case 2] He is somewhat less at ease in the fashionable Montparnasse cafes and the quiet elegance of right bank residences or big hotels. But he likes best the cases he finds in these circles, where he can penetrate behind the facade of wealth and prestige and expose the unforgivable crime, murder for profit.
Of this kind was one of his greatest cases, that of an aged and wealthy American widow who with her maid-companion was brutally stabbed to death in her luxurious Saint-Cloud villa. A delivery boy was convicted on circumstantial evidence and condemned to the guillotine.
Maigret did not believe in the youth's guilt. He was far more interested in the dead woman's ne'er-do-well nephew who was in debt yet lived luxuriously, and a strange Czech medical student who appeared to have some link with the nephew. For days Maigret and the student played a cat-and-mouse game, each one trying to outwit the other, and a curious bond grew up between them. In the end, Maigret sprang a trap and the student turned out to be the murderer, having been paid by the nephew to commit the crime. He went to the guillotine and his last request was that Maigret attend the execution.2 [case 3]
Maigret was an idealistic novice when his first case led him into the purlieus of privilege and nearly ended his career before it had begun: he was 22, precinct secretary in the elegant Saint-Georges district of the city, when he investigated a midnight call for help from one of the great mansions. He found no corpse, nor any sign of a struggle, and the son of the family who showed the young detective through the house sarcastically commended him for his zeal. On his own, the youthful Maigret solved the case of the heiress, and her slain lover, but the scandalous truth was suppressed and Maigret, about to resign in indignation, was instead given his heart's desire, a transfer to headquarters and the homicide squad. There he has remained ever since, rising through the ranks to become the world renowned chief inspector. [case 4]
AT WORKAt police headquarters Maigret enters the shabby Quai des Orfèvres side of the Palais de Justice, through a dingy lobby and up two flights of bare, dusty stairs to his office. En route he peers into the glass cage, familiarly called the aquarium, where witnesses and suspects sit uneasily on the aged green velvet chairs, awaiting his interrogation.
His office has windows on the Seine, a row of pipes on the desk and until recently a coal stove, which at a tense moment in a case he would stoke up to a ruddy glow. He clung to his stove for years after the building was equipped with central heating.
Waiting for his summons in the aquarium often are individuals who come voluntarily to seek his protection. One of his most ambiguous cases began in this way, when a distraught husband came to reveal that his wife was planning to poison him, and later the wife arrived and reported with cool composure that her husband was the would-be poisoner and she the prospective victim.
Maigret is often besieged by persons suffering from paranoid delusions, but in this instance he felt he might indeed be confronting a crime before it was committed. In the end it was the husband who died, and Maigret unraveled a most ingeniously plotted murder in which the murderer had sought to use him as an unwitting accomplice. [case 5]
A visitor whose appearance in his office gave him peculiar delight was a tall bony prostitute he had known in the past as La Grande Perche.3 Once as a young sergeant he had been sent to arrest her for petty thievery, whereupon she had stripped to the skin before his eves and refused to budge from her bed, so that the blushing Maigret was obliged to call two gendarmes to help him wrap her up and carry her to the police station.
This time La Grande Perche came clad with utmost propriety, a respectable married woman asking help for her husband who, in pursuit of his not so respectable profession, had discovered a murdered woman on the floor in a rich dentist's house where he had broken in to crack the safe. No corpse was found, and the dentist and his elderly widowed mother knew nothing even of an attempted burglary. But Maigret believed the retired prostitute and her burglar husband, and by dint of patient probing he had the satisfaction of once more penetrating a facade of unassailable virtue to the evil hiding beneath. [case 6]
Maigret is implacable with privileged hypocrites but gentle with small people struggling for survival; he has shown sympathy even for murderers. Once he sent flowers to the hospital room of a splendid, savage young woman and cruel murderess, simply because she had just given birth to a child.
This was an incident in a nerve-racking case that began with a series of frantic telephone calls from a man who said he was being followed and was about to be killed. Maigret sent his men to each spot, tracing the calls, only to learn that the man had just left; that night his body was found, stabbed and mutilated, on the pavement of the Place de la Concorde. Feeling personally at fault because the little man had called on him in vain, Maigret followed the involved trail to the victim's small cafe, found his plain but appealing wife, his friends who knew more than they dared tell, finally discovered the killers whose well-concealed leader the unfortunate man had accidentally identified. [case 7]
As a policeman Maigret came to know Paris from end to end:
METHODSWhen he is on a case Maigret sits smoking, listening, watching, sometimes for days, in bargemen's cafes, tinselly nightclubs, workmen's bistros. He drinks according to the setting, pernod in Montmartre and cocktails in Montparnasse, but if he begins a case on a particular drink, calvados or vin blanc or (rarely) whiskey, he superstitiously continues with that drink until the case is solved.
His favorite drink is beer, his favorite spot the Brasserie Dauphine across the square from headquarters, where the same table is always reserved for him and his squad. His right-hand man, whom he still calls "son," is Inspector Lucas, a worshipful small-scale Maigret a head shorter and half as broad who even smokes a pipe like his chief's although it is much too large for him. Another devoted aide Maigret still calls mon petit is Janvier although he is by now near middle age: the epithet dates from his days as Maigret's young protégé who believed that he was inconspicuously watching a suspect by sitting behind an open newspaper of which he never turned a page.
Maigret teaches his aides never to make deductions; he insists he himself never thinks, never has ideas about a case. Instead he watches, waits, listens, visits and revisits the scene, walks the district and holds apparently purposeless conversations with people on the periphery of the crime. As he comes close to understanding, he begins to think, feel, even look like the murderer; he becomes sulky and preoccupied, does not answer when spoken to. At such times his men tiptoe around him, knowing a solution is imminent.
He once tried haltingly to describe his method to his superior: "You know, chief.... I come and I go and I sniff around. You'll hear people say I'm waiting for inspiration.... What I'm waiting for is the one significant event that never fails to happen. The whole thing is to be there when it does, so that I can take advantage of it." [case 8]
His patience in waiting for this moment is legendary, his record is dotted with endurance records: an interrogation that he pursued for 26 hours without pause [case 9]; a vigil that he kept beside a garden gate for two nights and three days in the rain. On that occasion he was simply waiting for a man to come out of a house; he had neither food nor drink but to him the worst of the ordeal was that he ran out of matches for his pipe. [case 10]
Another time he crouched on the roof of a small seaside hotel in the teeth of an icy gale from noon to midnight, watching through the window of a deserted house for two lovers to meet. He held his revolver ready in case the man's anger might drive him to do violence to the girl, and he ended his watch with a satisfied sigh when at last the two fell into each other's arms. This was the event he had waited for, while an anomalous, nonpracticing physician sat willingly in jail in apparent fear of his life and the mayor raged that the great man from Paris was doing nothing to solve a run of crimes that were terrorizing the little Breton town. [case 11]
Although at the start of a case Maigret conscientiously sets in motion the complete police routine, in his long career at headquarters he rarely sets foot in the famous anthropometric department except to show it to a visitor. His sole link with criminologic science is a tall, weedy, nearsighted young laboratory technician named Moers, who alone of the scientific staff understands Maigret's concern with character and psychology as the true clues to a crime, and can penetrate the physical findings to such clues. Moers, who specialized in handwriting, was once able to tell him that the writer of a certain anonymous note was a foreigner of exceptional intelligence who knew several languages and was suffering from an incurable disease. [case 12]
MAIGRET AND MEDICINEAlthough he reached his third year in medical school, Maigret does not presume on his knowledge of medicine but turns for guidance to his physician and friend Dr. Pardon, with whom he and Mme Maigret have dinner once a month. Among his cases involving physicians was one in which the chief suspect was a world-renowned brain surgeon and the victim a girl of the streets whose life the surgeon had saved by a skillful operation and whom he afterward made his mistress. Maigret was baffled by this gifted man's dedication to his work and his Olympian aloofness from human concerns; he put off interrogating the physician until near the end of the case, and forever after when this man's name comes up in conversation Maigret pretends he never heard of him. [case 13]
One case, involving two physicians and the murdered wife of one of them, came up while Maigret was on a holiday prescribed by his own doctor, after a lingering bronchitis and a specialist's finding of a slightly elevated blood pressure. Barred by doctor's orders from setting foot in police headquarters, he followed the case in the newspapers and sent anonymous block-printed notes to his assistant Janvier, like the notes he always gets from newspaper readers when he is handling a sensational case.
Maigret was concerned that the younger physician, who was promptly arrested, should not be victimized because of his youth and good looks. His one foray into direct investigation, in which he learned of the young man's old-fashioned sexual modesty from his more emancipated fiancée, gave Maigret the key to the truth. At the end Maigret in his turn received a block-printed anonymous picture postcard of police headquarters, saying: "Thanks, chief." [case 14]
Maigret's health is normally robust but in the inclement Parisian winter he suffers frequent colds in spite of his huge black velvet-collared overcoat. Sometimes during a difficult case he invents a cold to escape the turmoil of headquarters and do his thinking quietly at home, pampered by Mme Maigret with herb tea and hot toddies. With an agility surprising for one of his weight he has more than once escaped death; he has been wounded four times, most recently when pursuing a man who jumped from a train in southern France. He woke up in the hospital to find himself accused of being the madman who was murdering women in the district. A gifted surgeon with a dubious past was a leading figure in this case which Maigret solved while confined to his bed. [case 15]
TRAVELSMaigret is often called out of Paris and once he was summoned on a nostalgic journey to his boyhood home at Saint-Fiacre, to the very chateau and estate of which his father had been the manager. The summons was an anonymous warning that a crime would be committed in the church at first mass on All Souls' Day: as predicted, the elderly countess, who in his boyish eyes had been the beautiful princess in the fairy tales, was found dead in her pew.
Maigret was saddened to see the chateau in disrepair and to learn that his boyhood heroine in her late years had taken a series of young lovers, driving her disgusted son to become a wastrel. But with Maigret's subtle support the crime was solved and he had the satisfaction of seeing that the family he had admired could now regain its lost dignity. [case 16]
Maigret has followed trails to Holland [case 17], Belgium [case 18] and Germany [case 19] and worked with police friends in many countries. He toured the United States but dealt with only one case in New York, involving an émigré Frenchman who made a million dollars in jukeboxes and acquired some dubious associates in the process. Maigret felt at home only after he had left the deluxe Fifth Avenue hotel for a shabby hostelry near Times Square and was eating in a small French restaurant nearby. Despite a slender knowledge of English and the baffling American humor of his FBI friend, the redheaded O'Brien, Maigret broke up an American blackmailing gang, uncovered an old crime of passion and settled the case with a trans-Atlantic telephone interrogation of a respectable Frenchman who was in the end the true villain. [case 20]
American gangsters have also given Maigret trouble in Paris, particularly in one case in which he and his men were caught between killers bent on eliminating a fleeing witness and an assistant district attorney trying to bring his witness back alive. Maigret finally ran down the killers and saved the witness, but not before he had become thoroughly enraged at the Americans, good and bad, who stole a car as they would hail a taxi and treated the French police "as though they were children in Kindergarten!" [case 21]
AT HOMEMaigret punctiliously addresses his wife Louise as Madame Maigret, and she has respectfully called him Maigret since he became famous. They met when he first came to Paris and was taken by a friend to an evening party, where he disgraced himself by absentmindedly eating most of the petits-fours. Louise, a shy and warmhearted girl from Alsace, tool: pity on him; Maigret, equally shy, discovered by accident after repeated visits that she returned warmly his affection and in due time they were married. They lived for years in an apartment on the boulevard Richard-Lenoir, now an unfashionable neighborhood. Once a week on Friday nights they walked arm in arm to the neighborhood cinema, where Maigret's favorites were comedies.
An excellent cook and housekeeper, Louise never complained about her husband's irregular hours. He often asked her some irrelevant question: why would a woman take a long bus ride to market in one neighborhood when she lives in another? [case 22] Or, at what point in a relationship would a woman walking with a man not her husband casually take his arm? [case 23]
Only once in her husband's long career did she become involved in what Maigret likes to call Mme Maigret's own case. Loving children and having none of her own, she fell into the habit of stopping en route to the dentist to watch a little boy playing in the park, until one day the child's mother abruptly left him in her care, returning hours later to fetch him without explanation. By that time Mme Maigret had missed her dental appointment and, what was far worse, Maigret's lunch had burned on the stove.
Piqued, Mme Maigret recalled that the young mother's dress was inconsistent: her custom-made shoes and millinery shop hat were out of key with her inexpensive ready-made suit, as though she were attempting a disguise. So the timid Louise set out on her own investigation, with surprising discoveries that led Maigret to the solution of his own sensational case, of a bookbinder accused of burning a man's body in his furnace. [case 24]
FAMEIn the decades that followed Maigret's meeting with Georges Simenon, some 60 full-length accounts of his cases and as many shorter ones have appeared. He has been impersonated on film and television screens by leading French actors such as Pierre Renoir and Harry Baur as well as by Charles Laughton.
Maigret is retired now and he and his wife live in a country house in Meung-sur-Loire, a small town with a 12th century church and a chateau near the historic Orleans. Lucas has succeeded him at the Quai des Orfèvres, and the "petit Janvier" has married off a daughter to a mathematician. Another of Maigret's faithful sleuths, Torrence, now runs a private detective agency.
But the fund of Maigret's cases is inexhaustible, and although he is no longer active, millions of readers throughout the world still eagerly await another fascinating recollection from a long and fruitful career in the cause of justice and humanity.
[FELIX MARTI-IBAÑEZ, M.D.
FOUNDER OF MD]
1. It later transpired that his full name was Georges Simenon.
2. This case (A Battle of Nerves) was made into two films, in French with Harry Baur and in English with Charles Laughton playing Maigret in The Man on the Eiffel Tower.
3. Slang: A tall and skinny woman.