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The Private Lives of Private Eyes
Spies, Crime Fighers and Other Good Guys
The lives and times of the world's 25 best-known fictional crime fighters.
Illustrated "biographies" of the famous super sleuths—

by Otto Penzler
Grosset & Dunlap, New York
pp 106-115
1977

 

Jules Maigret


 
"There are no criminals." Georges Simenon wrote that in 1960, about three-fourths of the way through a creative life of monumental proportions, most of it devoted to an exploration of that anarchic theme.

Virtually all of Simenon's novels, novelettes and short stories (more than 1,000) deal with crime and criminality and, in fact, with the ultimate crime — murder. Central figures in these novels, the characters who force the action, are criminals in every legal sense, yet they are very ordinary people. They are certainly not born as ready-made criminals, somehow identifiable because of physical or psychological deformities. They are merely victims of circumstance, irrevocably drawn to eliminating an offending segment of their personal universe with a bit of poison or a bullet.

Maigret, the detective hero of scores of books (all of which are made up of short novels or short stories — there is no full-length Maigret novel), devotes his life and considerable talents to discovering murderers, but he often is depressed by their capture.

Unlike most of the great detectives of literature, Maigret does not have immense powers of deduction. He cannot obtain a few clues, consider their ramifications, then swoop down like an avenging hawk of justice and triumphantly carry away a killer to stand trial.

Maigret's powers are intuitive. Like Father Brown, he attempts to slip into the skin of his quarry and think like him, act like him — indeed, become him as nearly as possible. When he has practically assumed his suspect's identity, he is sure of his man and is able to arrest him.

The danger of this method is demonstrated when Maigret accepts the killer's mind into his own body. Becoming more and more attuned to his way of thinking, the empathy often becomes so intense that he understands the lethal motives of the killer. When comprehension becomes that complete, it is difficult for Maigret to accept the need to arrest and imprison, or execute, the killer he is bound to bring to justice. He has, in an indefinable way, arrested an extension of himself, necessarily causing some ambivalence, even sadness, at the conclusion of a case.

This sympathetic relationship with murderers is unusual in great detectives but it is quite real in Maigret as one of the manifestations of his exceptional compassion. It does not prevent him from being one of the most successful policemen in literature, but it does make it difficult for him to be light hearted and carefree.

Another major difference between Maigret and the other giants of detective fiction is his heritage. While most of the great crimefighters are British or American, Maigret follows in the footsteps of a scant few French detectives, primarily the legendary Vidocq, a real-life crook-cum-detective whose Memoirs so profoundly influenced Edgar Allan Poe and Lecoq, Emile Gaboriau's popular sleuth of the 1860s and 1870s.

Simenon's handling of Maigret's career parallels, in many ways, the adventures of another famous detective — Sherlock Holmes. In September 1929, Simenon wrote the first exploit of Maigret while aboard his yacht Ostrogoth, then quickly wrote numerous sequels, having conceived Maigret as a series detective at the outset.

Published in cheap paperback editions in France in 1931, they were instantly successful. By 1933 eighteen adventures were in print. Then, just as Arthur Conan Doyle tired of writing about Sherlock Holmes and tried to kill him off, Simenon decided he had had enough of Maigret and retired him. Forced to bring him back (in 1942) because of public pressure (just as Holmes had to be rescued from his plunge over the Reichenbach Falls), Simenon wrote an additional sixty-eight books about his detective up to 1972, when he retired him for good.

The books of Simenon are unique in that he was able to write one in three or four days, although he generally allowed himself the luxury of two weeks to complete a short Maigret novel. Other authors, such as John Creasey and Edgar Wallace, and such prolific pulp writers as Walter B. Gibson, were able to write at a similar pace, but none ever had the critical success enjoyed by Simenon. His books are rarities which simultaneously reach a large audience and still are reviewed as "literature," rather than hackwork, by serious critics.

Much of Simenon's life and attitudes is reflected in the person of Maigret, and the detective sometimes delivers the author's philosophy. Forced to write about Maigret more frequently than he wanted to, Simenon was greatly relieved to force him into retirement a few years ago.

Now, indulging himself by writing precisely what he wants to write, Simenon produces only a small, slow trickle of autobiographical essays which have, up to now, avoided analysis of one of the towering figures of mystery fiction — Jules Maigret.


In 1927 or 1928 (he isn't sure, he says, because he has no memory for dates), Jules Maigret met a young novelist named Georges Sim (alias Georges Simenon) who was to become the chronicler of his criminal investigations for nearly half a century. As a result of that fortuitous encounter, the detective's crimefighting career has been recorded in more books than any other significant Continental detective.

Maigret himself, however, narrated his personal reminiscences, published in 1950 as Maigret's Memoirs. While generally pleased with Simenon's efforts, he points out some of the oversimplifications, errors and other shortcomings in the published accounts of his adventures. Simenon has the admittedly difficult task of telling all the stories from Maigret's viewpoint, exactly as the detective sees the situations or as they are described to him. The books are not written in the first person, but neither are they told from an omniscient author's point of view.

Jules Amedée François Maigret was born in 1877 in central France, not far from Moulins, the only child of a farmer and his wife. When he was eight years old (and his father was thirty-two), Jules' mother became pregnant again, but died with her infant in childbirth.

Jules' father managed an estate of 7,500 acres, which included at least twenty small farms. His grandfather (who died when Jules was five) had been a tenant farmer there, and so had at least three generations of Maigrets before that, all of whom "had tilled the same soil."

Jules Maigret's father had come from a family of seven or eight children, most of whom had died of typhus, leaving only his father and his father's sister (who later married a baker and settled in Nantes). Jules' father went to high school at Moulins (which was unusual for a farmer's son), largely because of an interest taken in him by the village priest. After spending two years at an agricultural school, he returned home to join the staff of the chateau as assistant estate manager.

Jules describes his father as "very tall, very thin, his thinness emphasized by narrow trousers, bound in by leather gaiters to just below the knee. I always saw my father in leather gaiters. They were a sort of uniform for him. He wore no beard, but a long sandy moustache in which, when he came home in winter, I used to feel tiny ice-crystals when I kissed him."

His father seldom laughed, he further recalls, but when he did, "it was a surprise to discover how young, almost childish his laugh was, and to see how much simple pleasantries amused him."

The Maigrets lived in an attractive, one-story, rose-colored brick house in the courtyard of the chateau. After Jules' mother died, his father became morose, and a local girl was brought in to look after the house and the child. His father did not drink, "unlike most of the people I knew," Jules says, taking with his meals only half of a small decanter filled with light white wine made with grapes harvested on the estate.

After attending the village school, Jules was sent to board at the high school in Moulins because his father was unable to take him back and forth each night, picking him up only on Saturday nights. He stayed only a few months before moving to Nantes to stay with his aunt and her baker husband. His holidays were spent with his father.

"I won't go so far as to say we were strangers to one another," Jules recalls, "but I had my own private life, my ambitions, my problems. He was my father, whom I loved and respected, but whom I'd given up trying to understand. And it went on like that for years."

But not too many years. A broken man following his wife's death, Jules' father finally died of pleurisy at the age of forty-four, the same illness that was to kill his aunt ten years later.

With the death of his father, Jules Maigret abandoned his recently begun medical studies and left for Paris, taking residence in a little hotel on the Left Bank. As a medical student, he had found a satisfying challenge in attempting to predict the ultimate cause of death of the patients he encountered, just as he had tried to predict the future professions of his schoolmates when he had been a youngster.

Undecided about his own future, Maigret had decided to apply for a menial job when a chance meeting with an older acquaintance from the hotel interested him in a career as a policeman.

Maigret's friend, Jacquemain, a detective inspector at the Quai des Orfèvres, made his profession sound attractive enough to induce Maigret to join the police force.

Jacquemain, who has such an important influence on Maigret, is "rather short and squat, dark-haired, with a prematurely bald patch which he concealed by carefully combing his hair forward, and black moustaches with curled tips." He is accidentally killed by a stray bullet in a street brawl three years after introducing Maigret to the force.

When Maigret becomes a member of the department, he is given a uniform and, he recollects, "I wore it, not for long, for seven or eight months. As I had long legs and was very lean, very swift, strange as that may seem today, they gave me a bicycle and, in order that I might get to know Paris, where I was always losing my way, I was given the job of delivering notes to various police stations."

Better educated than most French policemen at this time, Maigret is given further advanced studies, largely as a result of his friendship with Detective Inspector Jacquemain, and is soon promoted to a plainclothes position as secretary to the station officer of the Saint Georges District, a job commonly known as "station officer's dog."

Taken under the wing of Xavier Guichard, a friend of Maigret's father and a high-ranking police official at the Quai des Orfèvres, Maigret's next post is with the public highways squad, where he is required to do a great deal of walking in very cheap hobnail-soled boots.

His salary is small, his room is squalid, and he is always hungry during these early years of his career. Then, he chances to bump into an old friend from medical school, Felix Jubert.

Jubert introduces Maigret to Mr. and Mrs. Leonard and their niece, Louise, described as a "rather plump young girl with a very fresh face and a sparkle in her eyes that was lacking in her friends." Not too long afterwards, Maigret asks her to marry him, and they move into a flat on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, where they remain throughout his career.

Georges Simenon, who is chronicling the career of Maigret, becomes a good friend of both the husband and wife, viewing her as "a good housewife, always busy cooking and polishing, always fussing over her great baby of a husband."

Warm and kindhearted, and extraordinarily understanding, she never complains about her husband's irregular hours when he is involved in a case, and takes care of him when he comes down with one of his innumerable colds. Normally in the background, separated from his professional life, she becomes involved in one case by noticing an inconsistency of costume in a young mother.

As a member of the public highways squad, Maigret learns even more about the streets of Paris than he did as a messenger. Of greater significance, he learns about the street habitues and the criminal types who "spend most of their nights at the police station."

Following these months of plainclothes work, during which he is not permitted to carry a gun, he is transferred to the vice squad (which is called the "social squad") for a few months, where he deals with pickpockets, shoplifters, prostitutes and other lowly lawbreakers, patrolling railway stations, large department stores and hotels.

When he is finally assigned to investigative detective work at the Quai des Orfèvres, he quickly rises in rank from detective to detective-sergeant to inspector to chief inspector and, finally, commissioner. He is most often (albeit frequently inaccurately, due to faulty translations from the French narratives to English) referred to as inspector in the published accounts of his adventures.

At the age of thirty (1907), Maigret is transferred to the special squad, more familiarly known as the homicide squad, under Inspector Guillaume. Maigret is not blasé about his new assignment. "I could hear triumphant clarion calls ringing in my ears," he says. "The dream of my life was being realized." Running home to tell his wife the good news, he trips and falls at the door, picks himself up, and nearly faints.

On his first case in his new department, he is accompanied by his superior, Inspector Dufour. Wearing a disguise, Maigret is the first to arrive at an apartment house in the rue du Roi de Sicile, where he is to arrest a Czech for murder. As the tallest and heaviest man, he has the responsibility of making the actual physical arrest, grappling with the suspect until he is finally subdued (with the inspector's assistance) and the handcuffs slapped onto his wrists.

Maigret has clearly found his niche in the homicide division, where he works for many years. As the most respected member of the squad, he indulges himself in the luxury of reflecting and pontificating on his job:

"With all due deference to novelists," he says, "a detective is, above all, a professional. He is an official.

"He's not engaged in a guessing game, nor getting worked up over a relatively thrilling chase.

"When he spends a night in the rain, watching a door that doesn't open or a lighted window, when he patiently scans the pavement cafés on the boulevards for a familiar face, or prepares to spend hours questioning a pale, terrified individual, he is doing his daily job.

"He is earning his living, trying to earn as honestly as possible the money that the government gives him at the end of every month in remuneration for his services."

Maigret also provides some insight into his methods:

"Some investigations take months," he says, "and certain criminals are eventually arrested only after long years, and then sometimes by pure chance.

"In practically every case the process is the same.

"You have to know.

"To know the milieu in which a crime has been committed, to know the way of life, the habits, morals, reactions of the people involved in it, whether victims, criminals or merely witnesses.

"To enter into their world without surprise, easily, and to speak its language naturally. "That is why we aren't wasting our time when we spend years pacing the pavements, climbing stairs or spying on pilferers in big stores.

"Like the cobbler, like the pastry cook, we are serving our apprenticeship, with this difference, that it goes on for practically the whole of our lives, because the number of different circles is almost infinite."

Obviously, Maigret is a tireless worker, plodding his way through every case in an infinitely patient search for the key to its solution.

"I come and I go and I sniff around," he says modestly. "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."

Although he dearly loves to eat, Maigret is so dedicated that he often has beer and sandwiches sent up to his office for lunch. Since his apartment is within walking distance of the office, and he walks to work in the morning (when he is young), he often tries to go home to share lunch with his wife, but he rarely manages to make it, some new emergency inevitably turning up to prevent it.

More likely, if he gets out at all, he will lunch with his colleagues in his favorite restaurant, the Brasserie Dauphine, across the square from his office; his special table is always reserved for him.

Despite the nice location of his office (it overlooks the Seine), it is old and quite shabby. Years after the Quai is equipped with central heating, Maigret keeps a black coal stove in his office for the more personal warmth it gives, as well as the fact that it helps reduce tension if he stokes it during particularly trying moments of an interrogation. It is too efficient, however, his office frequently being so overheated that he is forced to open his window.

It is necessary to enter Maigret's office by passing through the run-down lobby of the Quai des Orfèvres side of the Palais de Justice. After crossing the dingy lobby, Maigret has to walk up two flights of stairs to get to the office. Usually, he stops to look into the "aquarium" — a glass cage in which witnesses and suspects sit on old green velvet chairs, waiting to be questioned by him.

When Maigret interrogates someone, he displays extraordinary patience, once questioning a suspect for twenty-six hours without a single break. He waits and watches a house for three days and two nights, expecting a man to emerge from it. He has no food, no drink, and it rains constantly, but he is affected only when his supply of matches is exhausted and he is unable to smoke his pipe. (He normally smokes incessantly and has a collection of fifteen pipes lined up on his office desk.)

Otherwise in robust health, his long, chilling, rain-filled surveillances give him more colds than most humans could endure. His only other physical difficulties are incurred in the line of duty: he is wounded on four separate occasions.

Maigret's patience is less the result of a special dedication than a compensation for other shortcomings. He asks interminable questions during interviews, many of which seem irrelevant, but they sometimes contribute toward the weakening of a suspect.

Although kind-hearted and compassionate toward the weaker members of the uneducated and lower classes, he is implacable in his pursuit of genuine villains. Maigret looks nothing like a policeman, and gives no appearance of having great intelligence, seeming to be always sleepy. Despite his apparent dearth of intellectual capabilities, he does have intuitive gifts and perceptive talents of unusual magnitude, enabling him to understand people of the most diverse backgrounds.

Maigret's methods are effective. When he determines who his most likely suspects are, he insinuates himself into their lives, watching them constantly. He is forever on the perimeter of their lives, seeing, hearing and learning everything about them. More often than not, he learns the identity of the guilty person intuitively, and he either waits for a mistake, when he can arrest him, or waits for his formidable omnipresence to drive the criminal to seek him out to confess.

During his tedious, time-consuming vigils, Maigret often drinks. He likes to find a café from which to keep a close scrutiny on his prey, and to order a glass of white wine, or two, before moving on to another café, where he sips a leisurely calvados. Or he will have his favorite drink, beer, or possibly marc, or pernod, or an aperitif, or a cocktail or, occasionally, a whiskey. Whatever his particular preference at a specific time, he drinks relentlessly.

The seemingly endless number of drinks, combined with the hearty meals, combine to make Maigret rather stocky. He is five feet, eleven inches tall and weighs 200 pounds, with broad shoulders and the heavy features which reflect his bourgeois origin. His hands, which are almost compulsively kept clean and meticulously cared for, are usually shoved into his pockets. When he was young, he had a long, reddish-brown moustache which he later trimmed to a toothbrush moustache, until he finally eliminated it altogether, remaining clean-shaven.

He wears well-cut suits made of high-quality material, and in the winter has a heavy overcoat with a velvet collar, and a bowler hat. When a case is in progress, Maigret stays active, generally leaving his office to become part of the environment of the crime. While he blends into the lives of those involved in the investigation, the necessary background research is handled by his subordinates, inspectors Lucas, Janvier, Lapointe and Torrence.

Inspector Lucas, Maigret's right-hand man, worships his chief. A head shorter and only half as broad as Maigret, he smokes a pipe much like his, which is far too large for his face and looks absurd. Janvier is also entirely devoted to Maigret (who calls him mon petit — my little one — although he is middle-aged).

Not a member of the force, but also helpful on several cases, is Dr. Pardon, Maigret's personal physician and friend. He dines with the Maigrets about once a month. When medical problems or questions arise in a case, Maigret seeks Dr. Pardon for advice, despite his own medical training.

The only member of the scientific staff in the police department who is useful to Maigret is the tall, weedy, nearsighted young lab technician named Moers. He alone understands Maigret's preoccupation with character and psychology as the real clues to a crime, and he is able to provide physical and scientific evidence which point to those clues. He specializes in graphology.

Maigret's cases have taken him to many locales in France besides Paris, and he has even traveled to Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States in his pursuit of evildoers.

He is forced to leave his wife while on a case, but otherwise he is very close to her. Curiously, he calls her "Madame Maigret" and she calls him "Maigret," but that should not be considered as even the slightest evidence to indicate a lack of affection for either one toward the other. Their favorite pastime is going for a walk together after dinner, or attending the neighborhood cinema (his favorite films are comedies).

The Maigrets have no children, but his wife's nephew, Philippe Lauer, also on the police force, is close to them.

The chronicler of his adventures, Maigret's old friend Simenon, is forced to give up his writing career in 1973 because of ill health, and Maigret now also retires. His position as commissioner is taken, appropriately enough, by the dedicated Lucas, and Maigret and his wife lead a quiet retirement at their country house in Meung-sur-Loire, near Orleans.