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22 march 2010

Last week I read about a thousand pages of Simenon, which made no perceptible dent in the writer's œuvre, but kept me sane while I waited to see if various flight delays would be even worse than I imagined. Simenon is a writer so prolific that his life's work cannot finished by even the most devoted reader. And since it consists of over twenty dozen hard-boiled novels of middling length, Simenon's output has a fairly formless, trackless quality. The best I can do is to write up the few I've read recently in hopes of staking out a small, serendipitous evaluation of part of the Simenon canon.

Maigret is a pretty good place to start, since it is the eponymous novel featuring one of the world's most famous fictional detectives. Yet though it would figure to be the ur-Maigret, it bears a curiously eccentric relation to the series. Published in 1934, it's not the first policier to feature Maigret – it's more like the twentieth. And though it comes nearer the start than the finish of Simenon's 40-year, 75-novel career as a writer of Maigrets, it is set at the very end of Maigret's career.

As Maigret opens, our hero is in retirement, enjoying the fisherman's life at Meung-sur-Loire, just as he threatens to for most of the fifty-odd novels Simenon would later write about him. Maigret is drawn back to Paris when his wife's nephew, whom Maigret had placed in a job at the Quai des Orfévres, becomes the prime suspect in the killing of a minor mobster. Like some primeval Jessica Fletcher, Maigret must charge into action to clear the name of an ad hoc distant relative.

Of course, the hapless young man is as innocent as you are. But Maigret's successor as commissaire warns that clearing him won't be a snap. His famous "method" won't work with these hardened criminals. What "method," Maigret asks. Commissaire Amadieu:

Vous le savez mieux que moi. D'habitude, vous vous mêlez à la vie des gens; vous vous occupez davantage de leur mentalité et même de ce qui leur est arrivé vingt ans auparavant, que d'indices matèriels.

[You know it better than I do. You mix yourself up in people's lives. You don't look for clues; instead you study their psychology, even what happened to them twenty years ago.] (139)
Simenon would go on to elaborate that method to perfection in at least fifty further novels, written years later. By the later years of Maigret's career, he and Mme. Maigret were fond of television. In his retirement, back in 1934, he lived in a pre-television world. The height of high-tech sleuthing in Maigret consists of sawing off a mop handle to wedge it beneath the receiver of a telephone so that the police can overhear his conversation with a mob boss.

Such is the topsy-turvy world of successful genre fiction. Simenon created a character, sent him into retirement and then let him youthen for another forty years. We are fortunate that he didn't agonize over contradictions in his backstories.

Meanwhile, just as a novel, Maigret is readable enough, but it's pretty forgettable Maigret, perhaps just because the commissaire can't use his "method." It's pretty obvious who the murderer is; to catch him, Maigret just has to trap him into confessing, which hardly involves Poirotvian feats of detection. But seeing as Maigret spent decades just shy of retirement age, it's nice to read about him catching his fish at last.

Simenon, Georges. Maigret. 1934. Paris: Pocket, 1992.