Inspector Maigret: A French Sense of Justice

Providing food for thought for authors and readers alike is a recent New Yorker piece by Adam Gopnik that probes the enduring popularity of Belgian author Georges Simenon and his police inspector Jules Maigret (portrayed above by Michael Gambon).

Anyone who can write five hundred books—seventy-five about his most famous invention, Maigret—must have something to say to us. Simenon attributed his massive output to his stripping away of everything “literary” from his work—no adjectives! no adverbs! But, as Gopnik points out, his books are full of simple modifiers. What he does not do is comment on the narrative. You might have, as in Gopnik’s example, “The lethargic blonde cashier”—two adjectives right there—but not “The lethargic blonde cashier, of a kind you find in every bar of this sort, usually a former dancer . . .” She’s lethargic, she’s blonde. Leave it at that.

Unlike the modern police procedural (which I quite like, because I’m fascinated with the details of how people do things), Maigret relies more on manipulating the psychology of his suspects. Gopnik suggests they confess out of a sort of collaboration between them and the inspector, rather than because of the weight of forensic evidence. Possibly, in countries where people believed in the power of the confessional, where a priest could intercede with God, a police inspector could intercede with the State.

He says, “Maigret knows that people want to tell their stories, and, if prompted, will. Listening, not inquiring, is the detective’s gift.” Here’s where Maigret’s pipe-smoking becomes an investigatory tool. The long drawn-out process of finding a pipe in some pocket, then the tobacco, filling it, finding the matches in some other place, and getting the pipe properly lit, offers ample realms of silence that a suspect may feel compelled to fill.

Marked differences exist between Maigret’s world and that of detectives in typical American police procedurals. You may have noticed these peculiarities in your reading or capitalized on them in writing set outside the United States. Mostly, as Gopnik says, Maigret is “so French!” What makes him so? He’s a salaried government employee, a functionary, and proud to be one. He doesn’t see the system itself as a problem, just those who try to keep it from working. (No structural problems there. No Don Winslow’s The Force.)

American detectives tend to be independent spirits, chafing under official policy, threatened with demotion for insubordination, and the like. With Maigret, it’s the opposite. Maigret is frustrated not by his bosses, but by his underlings, with their inefficiency and dullness of brain.

Maigret also is not afflicted by a mania for justice, or at least he sees that justice comes in many guises, one of which may not be the need for conviction and incarceration. On this point, Gopnik’s argument reminded me of Inspector Montalbano, which, in several episodes, the Sicilian detective decides not to follow down a particular case where the situation is resolving itself. Stories set in the U.S. rarely go that way, perhaps only when there’s a particularly worldly-wise sheriff who’s seen it all. “Sanctimony and self-righteousness, favored American traits, are disfavored in Simenon’s world.” (This is leaving aside the implacable Inspector Javert, of course.)

Put it like this: it’s a world not dominated so much by black and white, but by gray.

Penguin has released newly translated paperback versions of the full Maigret series, with covers resembling that of his first Inspector Maigret novel, Pietr the Latvian.

6 thoughts on “Inspector Maigret: A French Sense of Justice

  1. Unlike many American detectives, M. Maigret is not a loner. He is married, and sometimes comes home for lunch with his wife, or goes for walks with her. There is a lot of patient detective work in Simenon’s stories, and Maigret does a lot of delving into the psychology of the characters in the stories. And he seems able to capture the atmosphere of a scene with a few, well-chosen lines. He knows very well what the daily lives of his characters are, on the farm, in bars, in cities, or wherever they are, and is a keen observer of what they do, eat, and wear.

  2. If he could write a book in a week he was the fast. Brit John Creasey wrote a vast number as well, so I suppose it’s possible. As far as his rather incredible boast about his romantic conquests, probably the less said about that, the better. For the record, his second wife said that the number was inflated. She said it was only 1200.

  3. I’ve heard of Simenon and have always wondered about Inspector Maigret. Despite my aversion to translations, I did recently pick up a volume of his work mainly because my father was French and I had a very good friend from Belgium so I figured I’d see what the books were like. I’m wondering about the author’s veracity though. Five hundred books sounds almost as unbelievable as his claim to having slept with 10,000 women. I mean, how could he have found the time to do both? 😉

    • I don’t want to delve too deeply in this, but he says it only took him a week to write a Maigret. But the number of his books is, you’d think, a verifiable fact. The women . . . ?

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