15 August 2019

Reading all the Maigrets

Posted by John Clegg

On the 9th January next year, Penguin will publish the 75th and final Inspector Maigret novel, Maigret and Inspector Charles. It’s been a remarkable project - the series has been entirely retranslated (wherever I’ve checked against the old green Penguins the new translations have been much livelier). I’ve been reading them on and off throughout the project, but earlier this year I decided I’d finally make a conscious effort to read the lot, and can report that they’re absolutely wonderful, and far better read in bulk than intermittently.

For a start, you notice how very different they are from each other; they take in almost every permutation of the ‘crime novel’, from gangster thriller to police procedural to careful forensic investigation to intense psychological thriller to whodunnit. It is also impossible to tell, until you’ve finished, exactly what sort of story you’ve been reading; Simenon is adept at misdirection, and several times the crime which gets satisfactorily resolved at the end is one which you’ve not been paying attention to. Some of the stories roam wildly across Paris and draw in a large cast of incidental characters; others fix closely onto a particular place or community or social milieu; others zoom in even closer, on the ins and outs of a particular marriage or particular family. One memorable story is for three quarters of its length a description of a single interrogation in Maigret’s office at the Quai des Orfèvres.

It is Simenon’s greatest achievement that this variety of different story-types all feel as though they belong in a single coherent world. What makes this possible is the equanimity of tone and incident, and the coherence of the regular characters. Maigret emerges, from his debut in Pietr the Latvian, almost fully-formed; all the features are there from the start, from the pipes arranged by order of size to the enormous stove in his office (even when this stove is replaced by central heating, about halfway through the series, most books contain some remembrance of it), his immense reserves of sympathy and understanding, his enthusiasm for getting beer and sandwiches sent up to the interrogation room. Madame Maigret, who becomes about the best thing in the series, is again a filling-in of an perfectly-formed initial conception. Maigret’s regular subordinates, Lucas and Lapointe especially and the luckless plain-clothes Inspector Lognon, are all completely believable.

And their routines and intimacies, likewise, become familiar and believable. The novels are at their very best when they describe eating and drinking; the food and drink provide a positive counterpoint to the grisliness of murder, the best human instincts against the worst. Having read a great tranche of Maigrets it’s the meals, in the end, which stick in mind more than the murders – a delicious chaudrée, Maigret’s favourite andouillettes de Troyes, glasses of reserve Armagnac and dry white and ‘one of the best burgundies in France’, the aforementioned beer and sandwiches at midnight, calvados standing up at the bar while he keeps a suspect under surveillance, a glass of merc to convince the proprietor of a different bar to give him a telephone token, and this catalogue could be extended for many more paragraphs. Simenon, indeed, came up with the idea of Maigret over three glasses of schnapps.

Anyway, I commend all the Maigrets to you. Any of them are a good place to start, and there’s no need to read them in order, but I do suggest reading them in bulk. (A couple of exceptions: Maigret’s Memoirs is very silly, and The Grand-Banks Café I don’t think comes off; the story is compelling but Maigret is introduced very uncomfortably into it, I think it would have worked better as one of Simenon’s roman durs.) But if you want just one as a way in, The Late Monsieur Gallet is a particularly good story, and translated by Anthea Bell, our Translator of the Month for August. Or, alternatively, here's a list of some of my favourites.