Bibliography  Reference  Forum  Plots  Texts  Simenon  Gallery  Shopping  Film  Links

Maigret's world of odors

by Murielle Wenger

original French

"...a complete little world, with its own sights and smells and the tangled lives which he was trying to disentangle..." (L'écluse no 1, chapter 6) [ECL]

Someone once wrote that Simenon was a "nose-novelist", referring to his ability to absorb the odors of things and weather, and, through his descriptions, to make them perceptible to the reader. And we might say as well that Maigret is a "nose-Chief Inspector", for he too is very sensitive to odors, not to mention that his work "method" is to sniff, to absorb the scent, the atmosphere of a location. His creator himself compared him to a bloodhound on the trail of the truth... "In the same way dogs ensconce themselves, surly and obstinate, in a place where they have smelt out something." (Au rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas) [REN]. "Like a hunting dog, he needed to nose around in person, scratching, sniffing the odors." (Mon ami Maigret) [AMI].

In this little study, I'd like to analyze Maigret's relationship with odors, in the same way as I've done for colors. Browsing through the Maigret corpus, we note that mentions of odors, while certainly present, are, however, less frequent than those for the colors. Don't forget that Maigret is above all someone who works with his eyes, supplementing his impressions with his other senses. And we recognize that it's undoubtedly more difficult for a writer to describe the world of odors than that of colors, which has an available vocabularly both larger and more immediately understandable to the reader, with color words evoking a world more easily imagined. The world of odors is more subtle, relating to more intimate human notions, older experiences in a person's life.

Nevertheless, let's see what Simenon could evoke from this world of odors in the Maigret corpus. After a perusal of the texts, I found that references to odors could be grouped into a few major categories... odors of places, of objects, smells and flavors of food, and smells of people. And so we will examine each of these groups, which are often interconnected.

1. Odors of places

Maigret is very sensitive to odors, particularly of the locations he investigates. As we've noted, when he arrives on the scene, he begins to "sniff", literally and figurarively, the atomosphere of his surroundings. The smells of a place lead him to imagine the people who have been there, their behavior and their actions, and often leads to reminiscence, bringing back childhood memories. To sniff the atmosphere is also to call up a sort of "sixth sense", the scent for a bloodhound, the intuition of a policeman who "feels" the truth...

The places sniffed by Maigret are diverse, with certain constants found throughout the corpus... certain places reappear regularly in numerous novels. And so we will traverse each of these, to see the odors he apprehends, and how Maigret feels about them.

  • a) the odors of the sea

    The first odor mentioned in the corpus, chronologically speaking, is that of a seaside city... "Fécamp! A dense odor of herring and cod." (Pietr le Letton) [LET]. What could be more natural, in fact, than for the first odor sniffed by the Chief Inspector to be a maritime one, for he is a character born, mythically, on an abandoned old barge in a North Sea canal...

    This odor of Fécamp, of a fishing port, of fish being unloaded from trawlers, this somewhat disagreeable odor, Maigret finds again a little further along in the novel, "Five black trawlers were lined up at the quay. Barrels of fish were being unloaded and the air was stinking in spite of the storm." But he will certainly immerse himself in it in another novel, Au rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas [REN], where it becomes almost an obsession throughout the text... "It was just opposite the trawler Océan, moored to the quay, near a row of trucks. ...the men moving about in the harsh light, unloading the cod, passed hand to hand and then piled onto the trucks after being weighed. ... A rank, nauseating smell, which didn't lessen as you got further from it. "There was only the Océan showing its somber silhouette in the harbor, saturating the air with a strong smell of cod." "And the sea... a great black hole which exhaled a powerful odor." He retains the memory of it, evoking it in Félicie est là [FEL], "He knew Fécamp, the poor little houses... the kids romping about in the sickening smell of the fish.".

    But the sea can exhale other odors, and Maigret is sometimes content to breathe the air without commenting on its smell... "Maigret went out... Outside, he filled his lungs with the sea air, shook the ashes from his pipe." (Au rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas) [REN]. "You could feel that the sea was there, very close, at the end of the gulley. You breathed its breath." (La maison du juge) [JUG]. At other times he is more specific... "The wind came off the sea, smelling of the seaweed which must have been those big black blotches on the sand of the beach." (Le chien jaune) [JAU]. "The sea murmured beneath his feet, in front of him, on his right, on his left. The heavily salted air filled his lungs." (Le port des brumes) [POR]. "Resuming his walk... finding things already familiar... the port, the spread sails, the odor of tar and oil, the boats gliding in the channel and docked before the fish market" (Les vacances de Maigret) [VAC]. "They were now on a path that climbed the cliff... A strong smell of kelp rose up to them." (Maigret et la vieille dame) [DAM]. "The door was hardly open, and you could feel the strong, fresh breath which came from the black hole where the rails seemed to disappear... you could smell the odor of the tide and tar.." (Maigret à l'école) [ECO].

    b) the odors of the countryside

    Maigret, whose childhood was spent in the countryside, was nostalgic about its odors, which he sometimes encountered in the course of an investigation. The smell of the countryside, for the Chief Inspector, is on the one hand that of the houses (which we'll speak of below), and on the other of the earth, particularly when covered with moisture... "The door was left open, letting in the fresh but heavy evening air, along with the smell of grass and wet foliage." (La nuit du carrefour) [NUI]. "The foliage of the trees was wet. The earth gave off a strong smell of humus." (Le port des brumes) [POR]. "A good smell rises from the earth, the grass glistening" (Félicie est là) [FEL]. "It was pleasant, after the night he had just passed, to walk in the grass wet with dew, to smell the odor of the earth" (Maigret et son mort) [MOR]. "It was humid in the garden, with a strong smell of soil." (Maigret et la vieille dame) [DAM]. "Covered with dew, the garden had a good smell" (Maigret et le tueur). [TUE].

    But there are also other odors... "a smell which reminded Maigret of his youth in the countryside, a mixture of hay, dry earth, and sweat... the odor of summer" (La patience de Maigret) [PAT], and "the first scent of lilacs filling the bottom of the garden," at Meung (Ceux du Grand Café) [ceu].

    c) the smells of inhabited places

    Maigret is also very sensitive to the smells of places frequented by people, of houses, hotels, rooms, shops and bistros...

    • odors of hotels: This is usually an unpleasant odor encountered by Maigret when his investigation takes him into a hotel... among the memories of his apprenticeship in the hotels division ("And then, in their underclothes or stark naked, men, women, and children would scurry about in the dim light, in the stench..." in Les mémoires de Maigret) [MEM], and those of young Sim arriving in Paris, the smells of dirt, poverty, questionable things, which dominate Maigret's visits to hotels. It's the odor Maigret finds at the Hôtel du Lion d'Or, where the Czech gang is holing up (Maigret et son mort) [MOR]: "The doors opened onto the dilapidated rooms, each of which, in addition to the smell of the house, exhaled the odor of its guests of the week or the night". It's the smell of the staircase at the Hôtel Beauséjour, Rue de Birague, "smelling of bad food and toilets" (Stan le tueur) [sta]. It's the odor the young police station secretary sniffed at the Hôtel du Centre, Rue Brey, when he was searching for Bob (La première enquête de Maigret) [PRE]: "He went up, into the smell of human life and food." This odor of food, however, is not the appetising one found in the bistros (see below): "It smelled of veal in gravy and dry biscuits." And in Cécile est morte [CEC], describing the odor at the Hôtel du Centre, Boulevard Montparnasse, where Monfils was staying, a "quiet hotel, frequented by provincials" and where the food was like the clients, bland and neutral... It's also the dubious smell of hotels which serve as well as brothels, like the Hôtel Beauséjour where Levine was staying (L'amie de Madame Maigret) [MME]: "the odors of the house were so persistent that he was happy to be out on the sidewalk again, breathing the smell of the streets in the rain". It's the odor which "inconvenienced" Maigret when he'd had to arrest Ernestine on the Rue de la Lune (Maigret et la Grande Perche) [GRA]. Or again the smell of the Hôtel Lambert where Cuendet had set up his surveillance (Maigret et le voleur paresseux) [PAR]: "The air was stagnant, overheated, with an overriding odor vaguely like disinfectant, reminding him of the métro.". Or lastly, the odor of the Hôtel Beauséjour, Boulevard des Batignolles, where Jean-Luc Bodard lived (L'ami d'enfance de Maigret) [ENF], whose description suggests a curious collapsing of the memories of Maigret and his creator: "From the dimly lit hallway, Maigret recognized the odor, for at the time of his arrival in Paris, he had lived in the same kind of hotel in Montparnasse, the Hôtel de la Reine Morte... It was a smell of warm sheets, of lives crammed together... The odor became stronger as he ascended..."

    • odors of houses: Maigret is very sensitive to the odors of houses, as he has said, "the primary characteristic of a home is its smell" (L'ombre chinoise) [OMB], and "each house has its smell" (Liberty Bar) [LIB], "he always had a weakness for homes which had a characteristic odor" (Maigret et le voleur paresseux) [PAR]. The odor of a house tells much about those who live there... the smells can be pleasant, and evoke positive memories in the Chief Inspector, like the smell of cleanliness: "The maid disappeared into the nearby dining room and soon could be heard waxing... while the invigorating smell of turpentine spread through the house." (Monsieur Gallet, décédé) [GAL], "And always this cleanliness, this meticulous order, a warm smell of the countryside and of food." in Captain Joris's house (Le port des brumes) [POR], "The house is so peaceful, so pleasant, thanks to its dollhouse cleanliness, and its good smells!" (Félicie est là) [FEL]; "the house smelled of cleanliness, of soap" at the Duffieuxs' (Les vacances de Maigret), "the house had an indefinable smell of cleanliness and comfort" at Dr Bellamy's (Les vacances de Maigret) [VAC]; "the living room smelling of varnish" at the Loiseaus' (Maigret et son mort) [MOR], the "good smell of polish" of Arlette's waxed floor (Maigret au Picratt's) [PIC], the steps of Mlle Clément's staircase, which "smelled of wax" (Maigret en meublé) [MEU], the "faint smell of polish" at Blanche Pigoud's (Maigret et l'indicateur) [IND].

      The pleasant smell of life, like that of the doctor's living room in Monsieur Gallet, décédé [GAL], where "a good odor of cigar and aged spirits" reigned; "He breathed the soft and sweet scent wafting throughout the house, dominated by the hint of cinnamon which brought back old memories." (Chez les Flamands) [FLA]; "And through the house a delicious smell of wax, of simmering food, and a hint of something else, bittersweet, which seemed to Maigret to be the smell of the countryside." (L'inspecteur Cadavre) [CAD]; the "good smell of ripening fruit" at the Campois house (Maigret se fâche) [FAC]; "the fruity odor of the alcohol became for him the odor of the house, with a scent of good food, a hint of wax and "clean"" (Maigret et la vieille dame) [DAM]; "the smell of a well-kept house, where the floors are waxed and good food is prepared", Julien Chabot's house (Maigret a peur) [PEU].

      Cooking odors: "the smell of bacon and coffee" at Jean Chabot's, the atmosphere "heavy, full of familiar odors" (La danseuse du Gai-Moulin) [GAI]; "the smell of cabbage and bacon in the Gautier's kitchen (L'affaire Saint-Fiacre) [FIA]; a smell "reminiscent of Italian restaurants" at the Boulays' (La colère de Maigret) [COL].

      And sometimes incongruous mixtures of odors, as in Jef Lombard's house (Le pendu de Saint-Pholien) [PHO]; "And there was an overall odor of cleanliness, with, however, something vague, perhaps the mugginess of a sickroom.", or in Inspecteur Dufour's apartment, (La tête d'un homme) [TET]: "there was an odor of antiseptic and boiled chicken.", or again, in Brown's villa: "[the odor] was mainly of a very strong perfume, no doubt musk... And then a trace of a cold cigar "(Liberty bar) [LIB].

      Rustic odors: "it smelled of straw, cabbage, and a henhouse, altogether" in the house where Mme Grandmaison had taken refuge (Le port des brumes) [POR]; "hot and fragrant whiffs" from the Nauds' stables (L'inspecteur Cadavre) [CAD]; "he was trying on the house, as you'd try on a new garment, and the odor had already become familiar to him, an odor reminding him of the countryside, both sweet and sour" Albert Rochain's house (Maigret et son mort) [LIB].

      Or various other odors: "a heavy odor of gunpowder and tobacco" in the hallway of the uninhabited house from which Mostaguen had been shot (Le chien jaune) [JAU]; "a sweet and mysterious smell" more or less like that of a convent, at the Serres' (Maigret et la Grande Perche) [GRA]; "he tried to define the smell which pervaded the house, a smell he knew, and which wasn't without its charm, dating back to his childhood... that of old houses, damp wood paneling, along with a whiff of soil" Dr. Mélan's house (Maigret se défend)" [DEF]; "there was a pervasive and distinctive odor here with which the Chief Inspector was familiar, for he had noted it on each of his visits. A smell which somehow reminded him of police stations. An odor of the poor." Dr Pardon's consulting room (Maigret et le tueur) [TUE]; the smell of his sister-in-law's house in Alsace: "the smell of a house with cabinets filled with jam, the aroma of the little dishes and crèmes she loved to prepare" (Maigret) [MAI].

      But odors can also provoke negative feelings: the odor "muted, mostly of wax, of cooking and old clothes" of the Martins' apartment (L'ombre chinoise) [OMB]; the smells of the "old bachelor, the stale pipe smoke, the soiled underwear", which "blended with a sickly, loathsome smell" at Dandurand's (Cécile est morte) [CEC]; odors of decay: "a sweetish odor... only found in those places where the very old live confined" Léonie's house (Maigret à l'école) [ECO]; "the odor of very old dust" "a musty odor, of mildew", of Lachaume's house (Maigret et les témoins récalcitrants) [TEM]; "a pervasive odor of dust and decay, along with a whiff of Les Halles" of a building being demolished (Maigret et l'homme tout seul) [SEU]; "a stale humid smell" in the Grosbois's house (Menaces de mort) [men].

      And then there is the smell of houses in mourning: "on entering, there was a heavy smell of chrysanthemums" at the Couchets' (L'ombre chinoise) [OMB], "the smell of candles" which remained after Lapie's burial (Félicie est là) [FEL], "the smell of flowers and candles" at the Thourets' (Maigret et l'homme du banc) [BAN], "whiffs of flowers and candles" at Boulay's (La colère de Maigret) [COL], "the odor of candles and chrysanthemums" at Chabut's (Maigret et le marchand de vin) [VIN] and Marcia's (Maigret et l'indicateur) [IND], "the smell of burnt wax and chrysanthemums" at the Deligeards' (La vieille dame de Bayeux) [bay].

      In buildings, it's primarily the smell of the concierges' lodges, of which there are all kinds: "a stale smell of cat's urine" (Cécile est morte) [CEC], or "a little parlor that smelled more of wax than of cooking" in Mme Keller's building (Maigret et le clochard); then, the odors Maigret notices on stairways: "a stairway smelling of dishwater" in Eugénie's building (Maigret et la Grande Perche) [GRA]; an odor that changed at each landing, according to the cooking" (Cécile est morte) [CEC], or, in contrast, "no smell of cooking invaded the stairwell" in the building on Boulevard Saint-Germain where the Moncins lived (Maigret tend un piège) [PIE]; the house could feel "musty, as if it were only inhabited by old people who never opened their windows" in the building where the Countess lived (Maigret au Picratt's) [PIC].

      And finally, the smells of "household odors" (Les scrupules de Maigret) [SCR] of Maigret's apartment, "a bourgeois apartment, where you expect the good smells of simmering dishes" (Les mémoires de Maigret) [MEM], cooking odors, to which we'll return, and sometimes other smells: "so that instead of smelling of food, on this Saturday, the apartment at the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir had an odor of the bath, the eau de Cologne and somewhat sweet perfume that Mme Maigret reserved for special occasions" (L'amie de Madame Maigret) [MME]; and those of the house at Meung-sur-Loire, brought together all Maigret's memories: "It was cool in the house, where there was a good odor of polish, of cut hay, of fruits ripening and food simmering. That smell, that of his childhood, of his parents' house, and it had taken Maigret fifty years to rediscover it." (Maigret se fâche) [FAC], "A house like he had wished for all his life, one of those houses smelling of fruit ripening, cut hay, and polish, not to mention a simmering stew" (Maigret à New York) [NEW], with its living room "smelling like a convent parlor" (Maigret aux Assises) [ASS], "A stew simmering in the low kitchen with a blue tile floor, the scent of Saint-John's wort which filled the house" (La patience de Maigret) [PAT].

    • odors of rooms

      Maigret likes to penetrate the private lives of people, and once past the threshould of the home, or the landings of the hotel, we see him enter into rooms where are found, condensed, the various odors he sniffs... "the sharp smell of a never-aired bedroom" at Anna Gorskine's (Pietr le Letton) [LET]; the perfume in Else's room (La nuit du carrefour) [NUI], a "perfume so dense that it caught in his throat"; the odor of Captain Fallut's cabin (Au rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas) [REN], "saturated with a pungent odor which pervaded the entire boat"; "the smell of slovenly poverty, of old age, perhaps a smell of death?" in the room of old Mathilde and her sister (L'ombre chinoise) [OMB]; "the cold country room, smelling of the barn, winter apples, and hay" at Marie Tatin's inn (L'affaire Saint-Fiacre) [FIA]; "an odor both dull and spicy, recalling a bar, a boudoir and a bedroom" in the cabin of the Southern Cross (Le charretier de la Providence) [PRO]; "it smelled of the night, of the woman, the damp bed, with a dull odor of face powder and soapy water" in Emma's room (Signé Picpus) [SIG], "Maigret goes to sleep in a feather bed, into which he sinks... It has a good country smell, of hay, and mold also" in the room at the Anneau-d'Or (Félicie est là) [FEL]; "the good odor of the country given off by the mattress, becoming even stronger as Maigret soaked it with his sweat" in the room at the Nauds' (L'inspecteur Cadavre) [CAD]; a "smell of a Havana cigar and a scent that Maigret didn't recognize" in Richard Gendreau's office (La première enquête de Maigret) [PRE]; "what was in the mattress? Was it, as in Brittany, kelp, giving off the iodized odor of the sea? Others had been in the bed before him, and he thought, at times, he found that smell of the oil women smear on themselves before sunbathing" in the room at the Arche (Mon ami Maigret) [AMI]; "in the air floated a strong odor of soap" in Mlle Clément's room (Maigret en meublé) [MEU]; "He found the smell of hay and and mold of the countryside" in the room at the inn the Bon Coin (Maigret à l'école) [ECO]; "it still smelled of perfume and alcohol" in the Countess's room (Maigret voyage) [VOY].

    • odors of shops and markets

      Another place Maigret loves to frequent for its smells is the market, where he also likes the colors, all of it evoking for him culinary memories... "He had always loved markets, the smell of the vegetables and fruits, the sight of quarters of beef, the fish, the lobsters still alive..." (Maigret à Vichy) [VIC]. It's the novelist who here gives his character his own taste for markets, memories he guards since his childhood in Liège, and then of all those he'd come across in his life, of Paris, of little provincial towns, of the four corners of the earth... and up to the markets at Lausanne, which he still liked to visit during his Swiss retreat... "The earth, the flowers, the fruits, the vegetables... they held an important place in my life... this morning, I felt, on the Rue de Bourg, such profound joy, almost physical, or precisely physical, since this joy relates to sight, smell and hearing" (in Les petits hommes, Dictées).

      At Antibes (Liberty Bar) [LIB], the smells of the market... "all these flowers, these fruits, these vegetables in the sun, and the smell of garlic, of mimosa"; at Sables d'Olonne (Les vacances de Maigret) [VAC], it's the covered market, the fish market, and across the way, "a little bistro which we went down to by a walk which was like an extension of the market, filled with all the good smells"; and then, there are the Parisian markets, the one on the Rue Lepic, "the open carts crowded to the edges of the sidewalks with their piles of vegetables and fruits smelling of the good earth and springtime (L'amie de Madame Maigret) [MME], "There was a good smell of vegetables and fruits which came from the small carts lining the sidewalks" (Maigret et l'homme tout seul) [SEU]; the one on the Rue Mouffetard, "crowded with small carts which spread a strong smell of vegetables and fruits" (Maigret en meublé) [MEU], that on the Rue de Rivoli, near Les Halles: "the air filled with a strong odor of vegetables and fruits, the trucks loaded with crates and baskets" (Maigret à l'école) [ECO], the market on the Rue Saint-Antoine: "the smells of the cheese in front of the dairy, and further along the scent of coffee..." (Stan le tueur) [sta], and on the Rue des Dames: "a good smell of fruits and vegetables rose in the warm air" (On ne tue pas les pauvres types) [pau].

      In the same spirit, we can bring up the shops, also mixed with memories of childhood odors... "a little grocery filled with strange smells" at L'Aiguillon (La maison du juge) [JUG]; Mme Popineau's fish market at Sables-d'Olonne (Les vacances de Maigret) [pau], a "shop all in marble, from which came the sweet smell of fish"; "the sweet smell" of the pastry shop on the Rue de la République in Fontenay (Maigret a peur) [PEU]; the "warm and sweet atmosphere" of the pastry shop at Moulins (L'ami d'enfance de Maigret) [ENF], the herbalist's shop on the Rue du Chemin-Vert in Paris, "a dark shop, smelling strongly of Saint-John's-wort" (Maigret et la jeune morte) [JEU]; the "dull smell of cinnamon and chicory" of the grocery store of the Misses Potru (Les larmes de bougie) [lar]; a pastry shop where "everything was bright, sweet, and fragrant" (Monsieur Lundi) [lun]; "a dull odor of cheese" in a dairy (Le témoignage de l'enfant de chœur) [tem], and "a smell of furniture trimmings and cardboard" at Couvreur and Bellechasse's (On ne tue pas les pauvres types) [pau].

    • odors of bistros

      The odors of bistros, cafés and restaurants are among those Maigret most likes to sniff... the aroma of tasty simmered dishes, fragrances of little white wines, of Calvados or a foamy beer, leave Maigret filled with delight...

      Note that these odors seem to be in the realm of Parisian bistros, for when he investigates outside of the capital, the cafés he frequents give off other smells... consider first the particular scent of the Café de la Marine, near the Dizy lock (Le charretier de la Providence) [PRO], which brings to mind a shop for sailors... "there was a characteristic odor sufficient to make it different from a country café. It smelled of the stable, harnesses, tar and groceries, oil and diesel.", and further, "The odor persisted, spices, stable, tar, cheap wine."; in the waiting room of Neuschanz Station (Le pendu de Saint-Pholien) [PHO], it's "a smell of coffee, of beer and lemonade"; in the hall of the Hotel Van Hasselt in Delfzijl (Un crime en Hollande) [HOL], floats "a complex odor of beer, gin, and polish", while in another café in the same city, it's the smell of gin "which dominates, as in all the Dutch cafés and which made the atmosphere so different from that of a French café"; in a little café behind the Guillemins station in Liège, "it smelled of soup, and not of drink" (La danseuse du Gai-Moulin) [GAI]; in the Flemish coffee shop at Givet (Chez les Flamands) [FLA], "There was a hint of cinnamon, a deeper one of ground coffee. And it also smelled of oil, but with hints of gin", "odors of coffee, chicory, cinnamon and gin", odors which contrast with those of French cafés in the city... "the smell of anise apéritifs" and "a sour smell of warm beer" in the Café de la Mairie; in Porquerolles (Mon ami Maigret) [AMI] at the hotel restaurant l'Arche de Noé, we find "the sharp smell of the cooking and white wine", "a background of wine... with a hint of anise", "the good smell of southern cooking", "of garlic, red pepper, oil and saffron"; a little bar at Etretat (Maigret et la vieille dame) [DAM] "smelling so good of coffee and fil-en-six spirits"; the inn the Bon Coin, at Saint-André (Maigret à l'école) [ECO] "smelled of wine and stew".

      Returning to Paris, we breathe "the sour smell of Parisian bistros" (Maigret se défend) [DEF]... at the café Au rendez-vous des Aigles, in Charenton (L'écluse no 1) [ECL]: "there reigned a sweet and bitter smell which said "cocktail hour""; the restaurant of the hotel A ma Bourgogne, at Ivry, where "a heavy smell of stew and country red wine grabbed your throat" (Maigret se fâche) [FAC]; the brasserie Le Cadran, Rue de Maubeuge: "A good smell of beer and sauerkraut." (Maigret et son mort) [MOR]; the Vieux Calvados Rue Chaptal: "The smell too, was unique. This was perhaps because of the trap-door in the floor, which went down to the cellar. A kind of breath rose from it, acid, cider and Calvados, old barrels and mold, along with other odors coming from the kitchen" (La première enquête de Maigret) [PRE]; at Chez Calas (Maigret et le corps sans tête) [COR]: "the air smelled of alcohol and white wine, the alcohol stronger than the wine, with a hint of coffee"; the restaurant on the Quai des Grands-Augustins (Maigret tend un piège) [PIE], where "the air always smelled of Calvados"; a bar on the Boulevard des Batignolles (Un échec de Maigret) [ECH], "which smelled of Bourgogne brandy"; the restaurant A l'Escargot, on Rue des Saints-Pères, where "an odor of good food and garlic reigned" (Le client le plus obstiné du monde) [obs]. And also "the cafés, around the Gare de Lyon, which smelled of beer and croissants dunked in coffee." (Maigret se fâche) [FAC] and "a fragrant whiff in which lingered for him the quintessential Parisian dawn, the smell of café crème, of warm croissants, with a slight hint of rum" (Cécile est morte) [CEC].

      And then there are all the smells of the Brasserie Dauphine, "the warm calm of the Brasserie Dauphine, smelling of beer drawn from the cask" (Cécile est morte) [CEC]; "among the odors always floating in the air of the brasserie, there were two which dominated the others... that of pernod, around the bar, and that of coq au vin which came in puffs from the kitchen" (Maigret et le corps sans tête) [CEC]; "against a background of apéritifs and alcohol... the slightly sharp scent of provincial wines of the Loire. As for the cooking, tarragon and chives dominated" (La colère de Maigret) [COL]; "the smell of the food, of anise and Calvados which permeated the walls" (Maigret à Vichy) [VIC].

    odors of other places

    • odors of the realm of rivers and the sea: the "warm smell of manure and leather" on the barge (Le charretier de la Providence) [PRO]; the smell inside the trawler Océan (Au rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas) [REN], "a smell reminiscent of a barracks, a canteen and a fish market, all together"; the odor of the boat Saint-Michel (Le port des brumes) [POR], an "odor of tar and alcohol, of the kitchen and bedroom, but above all the indefinable odors of a boat"; the stable-boats which "smelled strongly of resin" (Maigret et le clochard) [CLO].

    • odors of other buildings: the building of the newspaper La Meuse in Liège (Le pendu de Saint-Pholien) [PHO], where the room reserved for the archives "smelled of wax, old paper, and official luxury"; the Moulins printing house, where "the smell of ink caught in your throat" (L'affaire Saint-Fiacre) [FIA]; the gendarmerie at L'Aiguillon (La maison du juge) [JUG], which "smelled of old leather, cabbage soup, and unwashed boys"; the smell of the Police station at Les Sables d'Olonne (Les vacances de Maigret) [VAC] "a good heavy smell, thick enough to cut with a knife, made of the leather of shoulder belts, the wool of uniforms, administrative paperwork, cold pipes, and finally the poor devils polishing their bottoms on the two wooden benches in the waiting room"; the Beaujon hospital (Félicie est là) [FEL], "full of dull smells"; the clinic at Les Sables d'Olonne (Les vacances de Maigret) [VAC], with the "sweet pharmaceutical odor"; "the smell of candles, of incense" in the church (L'affaire Saint-Fiacre) [FIA], and the "confessionnal... which smelled of musty old wood (Maigret à Vichy) [VIC]; the "odors of oregano and mild tobacco" of Mlle Olga's office (Les vacances de Maigret) [VAC]; the Criminal Records office, where "the air smelled of old paper, like in a public library"; the "strong odor of wine dregs" in the warehouses at Bercy (Maigret et le marchand de vin) [VIN]; the room in the archives of the newspaper Parisien libéré, which "smelled of old paper and printer's ink" (Maigret et l'homme tout seul) [SEU].

    • odors of the outside world: Antibes, "a sticky world of sun, frangrance of mimosa and sweet flowers", "the air smelled of melting asphalt" (Liberty Bar) [LIB]; Cannes: "everywhere the golden mimosas spreading a sweet scent which saturated the whole city" (Les caves du Majestic) [MAJ]; Porquerolles: "There were fragrances coming off the sun-heated water during the day, and others coming from the earth with the breeze. Weren't those eucalyptus trees on the square? Threre were probably other frangrant species on the island." (Mon ami Maigret) [AMI]; and then Paris: the quays on the Seine, where "the morning air smelled of water and tar" (L'écluse no 1) [ECL], "the smell of tar" which filled Paris on the hot summer days (Maigret et la Grande Perche) [GRA]; "dust, the smell of gasoline" (Maigret tend un piège) [PIE]; the smell of gasoline, which was "a part of spring announcing its arrival, like the smell of half-melted asphalt for summer" (Le voleur de Maigret) [VOL]; the mouths of the métro "smelling of bleach" (Maigret et son mort) [MOR], "the smell of laundry" in the métro stairway (La première enquête de Maigret) [PRE]; the "strong smell" of Les Halles (Le voleur de Maigret) [VOL]; and "the slightly sweet scent of the chestnut trees on the Boulevard Saint-Germain" (Le client le plus obstiné du monde) [obs]...

2. Odors of objects and things

The odors we inhale in different places are of course given off by the people and things there, but it may be interesting to isolate some of these elements to draw some illustrative examples...

Among the objects, consider Emma's box of seashells (Le chien jaune) [JAU], which "gave off an odor of old cardboard, dust, perfume and yellowed paper"; the "good smell of fresh wood" spread by the carved wooden toys at Grossot's (L'amie de Madame Maigret) [MME]; the smell of an old popular edition of Alexandre Dumas, reminding Maigret of "all the minor illnesses of his life" (Maigret et son mort) [MOR].

An odor that surrounds Maigret more or less permanently, you might say, is that of his pipe and tobacco. This smell of the pipe goes everywhere with him, invading such places as those he installs himself in to observe the scene of an investigation... "a strong pipe smell prevaded the room, despite the open window" (the hotel across froim the Citanguette, in La tête d'un homme) [TET]; "he thought he could distinguish a dark mass, thickset, like an enormous animal lying in wait... His nostrils discerned puffs of tobacco" (Leroy rejoining Maigret on the roof of the hotel, in Le chien jaune) [JAU]; "To escape from the rumbling outside, Maigret had closed the window... The pipe smell filled the room." (in his hotel room, in Le fou de Bergerac) [FOU]; "even the smell of tobacco was a professional odor... that of a pipe, extinguished the night before, relit in the middle of the night when awakened by an emergency" (Maigret at home, getting ready to leave for the scene of a crime, in Maigret et les braves gens) [BRA]. But it's also, of course, the dominant odor of his office... "There were dirty glasses all over the office, half-eaten sandwiches, and the smell of tobacco which stuck in your throat." (waiting during the night before Bronsky's arrest, in Maigret et son mort) [MOR]; "Glasses strewn around, cigarette butts, ashes, torn paper, and the air smelling of tobacco already stale." (the "disarray at the Quai des Orfèvres" at the beginning of Maigret tend un piège) [PIE].

3. Odors and flavors of food

Food, we know, plays an important role for Maigret. Not only because it represents an oral pleasure, synonymous with symbolic rumination, but also because it's an important part of the world of odors, and of the world of flavors to which it is linked. The smells of food – Maigret sniffs them everywhere, in markets, shops, restaurants, in his apartment... And these odors are also an important reflection of his memories.

Here then, is an evocation of all these odors and flavors, of which a simple reading is enough to make your mouth water...

  • a) odors of solid food

    • in bistros, cafés and other restaurants

      the "aroma of truffles" rising from the dining room of the hotel in Le fou de Bergerac [FOU]; the "fruity fragrance of the olive oil" in the salad "smelling of garlic", prepared by Jaja in Liberty Bar [LIB]; the "marvellous aroma of the coq au vin" in the Bougival inn, in La première enquête de Maigret [PRE]; the "smells of the bouillabaisse" coming from the kitchen at the Arche in Mon ami Maigret [AMI], "a veal stew which had the good smell of home cooking" at the Brasserie Dauphine (Maigret tend un piège) [PIE], "a plum tart, juicy, scented with cinnamon", Chez l'Auvergnat, Rue des Acacias (La patience de Maigret) [PAT]; a veal blanquette "delightfully creamy, the sauce a golden yellow, very fragrant" at the Brasserie Dauphine (Maigret et le marchand de vin) [VIN].

    • at home

      Maigret's gustatory range – and Mme Maigret's culinary one – will be considerably refined across the corpus, from the simple "fragrant stew" mentioned in Pietr le Letton [LET], passing to the quiches, which perfume the whole house in Chez les Flamands [FLA], and on to "the smell of the sorrel fricandeau" in Maigret s'amuse [AMU], a smell of quiche lorraine emanating from the kitchen Maigret et le client du samedi [CLI], a salad "fregrant with croutons rubbed in garlic" in L'ami d'enfance de Maigret [ENF], "a smell of baked mackeral" in Maigret et le tueur [TUE].

    • elsewhere

      Kid, "blackish meat whose fragrance astonished his nostrils" (Le charretier de la Providence) [PRO]; a "smell of fried onions" coming from Ducrau's kitchen in L'écluse no 1 [ECL]; a "soup which gave off a smell of leek" at the Duffieux's in Les vacances de Maigret [VAC]; the "sweet smell" of the waffles at the corner of the Rue de la Lune (Maigret et l'homme du banc) [BAN]; "a fine smell of leeks" which cam from Véronique's kitchen (Maigret et les témoins récalcitrants) [TEM]; "a smell of warm bread rose from the first floor and mingled with that of stew" at Justine Cuendet's (Maigret et le voleur paresseux) [PAR].

    b) odors of drinks

    Maigret is sensitive to the smell of drinks, of which some are particularly dear to him... the aniseed smell of apéritifs, the frangrances of eau-de-vie, and above all, the smell of coffee, which both reminded him of his childhood, and the tender attentions of his wife, waking him in the morning with a cup.

    • in bistros, cafés and other restaurants

      The "aniseed fragrance" of absinthe in Pietr le Letton [LET]; "scents of coffee and hot rum" in Le charretier de la Providence [PRO]; "a smell of brandy, mixed with that of pipes" in the café l'Aiguillon (La maison du juge) [JUG]; "Armagnac filled the air and their palates" at Mélanie's in Cécile est morte [CEC]; "another smell reminded him every morning since his early childhood, the smell of fresh coffee" (Mon ami Maigret) [AMI]; and the little Normandy bar on the Quai des Grands-Augustins... "in no other bistro in Paris was the smell of Calvados as strong" (Maigret s'amuse) [AMU].

    • at home

      "Plum brandy perfumed the dining room" (brought by his sister-in-law in L'ombre chinoise) [OMB]; "A good smell of coffee permeated the apartment" (Maigret se fâche) [FAC].

    • elsewhere

      "The sweet smell" of the hot chocolate Julie was making herself in Le port des brumes [BRU]; the "warm odor of hot coffee" rising from the barges in L'Ecluse no 1 [ECL]; "the good aroma of coffee being roasted in the Balthazar shop windows" (La première enquête de Maigret) [PRE]; "old golden Calvados whose fragrance filled the room" in Valentine's house (Maigret et la vieille dame) [DAM].

    c) flavors and gustatory impressions

    • solid foods: at La Coupole, Maigret delights in the fries, "truly sensational, crisp outside, melting within" (Les caves du Majestic) [MAJ]; at L'Aiguillon, it's the taste of the mouclade, with "just a hint... the slightest trace" of curry (La maison du juge) [JUG]; a butter "with a nutty taste" in the inn at Corbeil (Maigret et son mort) [MOR]; "a tasty stuffed shoulder of mutton" at Dr. Pardon's (Maigret et l'affaire Nahour) [NAH], a "tasty Alsatian sauerkraut" with some "particularly 'flavorful' salt pork" prepared by Mme Maigret (Maigret et l'affaire Nahour) [NAH].

    • drinks: at the Caves du Beaujolais, Maigret drinks, naturally, Beaujolais, with "a pleasant flavor, a little rough" (Maigret et son mort) [MOR]; at Porquerolles, it's a little white country wine, "fresh, slightly young, full of flavor" (Mon ami Maigret) [AMI]; at L'Auvergnat, Rue Lhomond (Maigret en meublé) [MEU], a white wine with "an aftertaste of a country inn", and at Mme Page's, in Fontenay (Maigret a peur) [PEU], it has a "sharp taste", while at Dr. Bresselles's, in Saint-André (Maigret à l'école) [ECO], it's "dry and light, with a strong earthy tast"; the vin gris (rosé) drunk in the Place du Tertre (Maigret s'amuse) [AMU], is "fresh, slightly acidic"; a Beaujolais "a little thick, but nonetheless fruity" at Petit-Saint-Paul (Maigret et le voleur paresseux) [PAR]; "a little wine from Sancerre both dry and fruity" at Barillard's (La patience de Maigret) [PAT]; a Tavel (dry rosé) "as fruity as you'd wish" at the Clou Doré (La patience de Maigret) [PAT]; the raspberry liqueur from his sister-in-law in Alsace of which "just the tiniest sip, kept in the mouth for a moment, was enough for the taste to remain on the palate for half an hour" (Maigret et le marchand de vin) [VIN].

    • And then, there's the flavor of the air which is also important to Maigret, flavors differing according to the seasons... in springtime: spring sunshine "with the tart aftertaste of unripe gooseberries" (L'écluse no 1) [ECL]; "the sparse smell, the vibrations of the air which had a taste of childhood memories" (Félicie est là) [FEL]; "the air was of the same color as the white wine, with the same taste" (Maigret à l'école) [ECO]; "the air smelled strongly of spring, with puffs so hard and fragrant" (Mademoiselle Berthe et son amant) [ber]; "one of those days which should be savored without doing anything else, as you'd eat a sorbet" (Le client le plus obstiné du monde) [obs]; in summer: an August evening "with a freshness you could taste like a fragrant sorbet" (Signé Picpus) [SIG], again in August: "The air was tasty like fruit, with cool puffs against a warm background.", "the air was so tasty that you wanted to bite into it like a piece of fruit" (Maigret se fâche) [FAC]; in winter: "cold air, tasty, which drinks like spring water" (La maison du juge) [JUG].
    • And again, the "dusty flavor" of the fog (Maigret chez le ministre) [MIN]; the flavor of the rain: "This rain was so fresh and flavorful that, from time to time, he stuck out his tongue to snap up a couple of drops, which had a special taste." (Maigret tend un piège) [PIE]; the flavor of the snow: "[Maigret] wanted to stick out his tongue to catch one of those tiny flakes floating in the air, with the dull taste he remembered " (Un Noël de Maigret) [NOE].

    • And not forgetting his "tasty" pipe that Maigret lights up on his doorstep at the beginning of Cécile est morte[CEC]...

4. Odors of people

Maigret is also sensitive to odors given off by people, which reveal much about their way of life and their behavior. Maigret classifies human odors into two categories, reflecting personality... One negative, for example, the odor of breath filled with bad alcohol, the sweat of fear, the excessive perfurme used by those pretending elegance – but a doubtful elegance, according to Maigret... And the other positive, reflecting luxury, like the elegant perfume of women, or the "natural", like the freshness of young women... or of Mme Maigret.

  • a) masculine odors

    • "negative" odors - Pietr as Fédor Yourovitch returning to Paris by train, "his mouth half open, reeking of alcohol" (Pietr le Letton) [LET]; Inspector Pijpekamp, preparing for lunch at the Van Hasselt's, who "gave off an odor of violet lotion" (Un crime en Hollande) [HOL]; Laberge, the Chief Engineer of the Océan, whose breath "was saturated with the stench of alcohol" (Au rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas) [REN]; similarly, Big-Louis at Mayor Grandmaison's, had breath "loaded with the smell of alcohol" (Le port des brumes) [POR], and Gassin, after his fall into the harbor, had "breath smelling more strongly of alcohol than ever" (L'écluse no 1) [ECL]; "Gérard Pardon's strong smell of alcohol" after having learned of the death of his sister (Cécile est morte) [CEC]; the "rancid smell" of the old manager of the Jem agency (Les caves du Majestic) [MAJ]; the brillantine of Inspector Méjat, "a stale smell that ten pipes couldn't drown out" (La maison du juge) [JUG]; the vagabond Polyte, who "gave off an odor, that reminded you of a Salvation Army shelter, only even stronger" (Les vacances de Maigret) [VAC]; the cologne worn by Inspector Santoni, "wafting the scent of a barber shop" (Maigret et l'homme du banc) [BAN]; the butcher Marcellin with breath "so heavy with alcohol that the Chief Inspector couldn't bear it" (Maigret à l'école) [ECO]; the dentist Mélan, whose "breath smelled like stale cigarettes" (Maigret se défend) [DEF].

    • "positive" odors - a slight smell of liqueurs and cigar" floating around Mortimer (Pietr le Letton) [LET], a "vague fragrance of eau de Cologne" emanated from Sir Lampson (Le charretier de la Providence) [PRO]; "Van Damme, a large signet ring on his finger, was encircled by a fragrant cloud of cigar smoke, that spiced the sharp smell of the alcohol" (Le pendu de Saint-Pholien) [PHO]; the patron of the Tabac Fontaine early in the morning: "at that moment, he still smelled of the bath; his hair wet with eau de Cologne" (Maigret) [MAI]; the lawyer Canonge, "discretely scented with eau de Cologne" (Maigret et le corps sans tête) [COR]; Judge Angelot, "spreading a faint smell of lavender" (Maigret et les témoins récalcitrants) [TEM], Carus also, "freshly shaved, spreading a smell of lavender" (Le voleur de Maigret) [VOL].

    b) feminine odors

    For the feminine smells, it's not always easy to separate the "negatives" from the "positives"; while it seems fairly clear that the odors of alcoholo, for women, are disagreeable to Maigret, it is not always as simple to determine if the scents of perfume and women's bodies act on him as repulsive or fairly attractive...

    • odors apparently rather "negative": Gloria Negretti's "pungent perfume" (Le charretier de la Providence) [PRO]; the "sweet smell of violet" of Mme Michoux's perfume (Le chien jaune) [JAU]; Adèle's "strong perfume... vulgar" (Au rendez-vous des Terre-Neuvas) [REN]; the "fragrant madam" of a brothel (La guinguette à deux sous) [GUI]; Gina's "odor of musk" (Liberty Bar) [LIB]; Valentine Forlacroix's "pungent perfume" (La maison du juge) [JUG]; Jaja's "awful breath, saturated with alcohol" (Liberty Bar) [LIB]; a notions saleswoman, "an old maid... with a terribly stale scent" (Les vacances de Maigret) [VAC]; the "pungent perfume, sickening" of a woman visiting the Quai des Orfèvres (Maigret et son mort) [MOR]; Lise Gendreau "with a stale odor" (La première enquête de Maigret) [PRE]; Ginette, "all perfumed" (Mon ami Maigret) [AMI]; a hotel keeper, "heavily perfumed" (L'amie de Madame Maigret) [MME]; Maria who "smelled strongly" (Maigret à l'école) [ECO]; a girl "very perfumed" in a bar (Maigret et les témoins récalcitrants) [TEM], and a woman "very perfumed" leaving a hotel (Maigret et le voleur paresseux) [PAR]; Nathalie Sabin-Levesque, who "smelled of alcohol from three steps away" (Maigret et Monsieur Charles) [CHA].

    • odors hard to classify: Else's "muted perfume" (La nuit du carrefour) [NUI]; Nine Moinard's "scented trail" (L'ombre chinoise) [OMB]; Emma the dairy maid "who gave the impression that she'd just come from milking cows, and still smelled of milk" (Signé Picpus) [SIG]; Georgette's "smell of the bed, of underarms" (Le revolver de Maigret) [REV]; "the smell of a woman, almost a smell of a warm bed" which emanated from Arlette (Maigret au Picratt's) [PIC], Jojo, with an odor "both muted and spicy, not disagreeable" (Mon ami Maigret) [AMI]; Mme Thouret, who "smelled of eau de Cologne" (Maigret et l'homme du banc) [BAN]; Thérèse, who "smelled of the bed" in the early morning (Maigret à l'école) [ECO]; Aline Calas: "she gave off an unexpected smell of eau de Cologne and cognac" (Maigret et le corps sans tête) [COR]; the "warm smell of the bed" given off by Jenny (Les scrupules de Maigret) [SCR].

    • odors clearly "positive": Maigret's sister-in-law, "who always smelled of lavender" (Maigret et son mort) [MOR]; the "the old-fashioned perfume" used by Jaquette (Maigret et les vieillards) [VIE] and which was the same as that used by Maigret's mother; and, last but not least, Mme Maigret, "who smelled fresh and of bath soap" (La première enquête de Maigret) [PRE].

    c) odors of Maigret

    The hero himself is not exempt from odors, diverse, which lend him his humanity...: "the smell of a wet beast" that Maigret gives off when his overcoat is soaked with rain (La première enquête de Maigret) [PRE]; a "good smell of sweat" when he is lying in his bed with some illness (ibid.); "the smell of pernod" on his breath before the arrest of Serre (Maigret et la Grande Perche) [GRA]; and probably an odor of pipe tobacco with which he must be impregnated...

5. Conclusion

Odors are a part of Maigret's world, like colors and other sensations. The Chief Inspector uses these odors to understand the world around him, and they serve him in his search for truth. To witness this, we'll finish by citing these two sentences, which speak for themselves:

"It was one of his cases whose odor pleased him, one he would have liked to sniff at leisure until the moment he was so impregnated with it that the truth would appear by itself" (Maigret et l'inspecteur malgracieux) [mal]; and this, in Maigret et les témoins récalcitrants [TEM]: "If Maigret, when he was immersed in an investigation, rarely returned home, it was less to save time, than to remain folded into himself, like a sleeper who, in the morning, huddles, wrapped in the covers, to better soak up his own smell. It was the private lives of others, in short, that Maigret was sniffing"...

translation: S. Trussel
Honolulu, March 2014

Home  Bibliography  Reference  Forum  Plots  Texts  Simenon  Gallery  Shopping  Film  Links