By Ray Greenblatt
I have written reviews before of crime novels: Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon with detective Sam Spade; Ross McDonald’s Sleeping Beauty with detective Lew Archer; Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams featuring Italian Commissario Guido Brunetti.
However, I have never encountered such a unique police procedural like Georges Simenon’s Maigret’s Memoirs, since Simenon himself enters the book as the obvious author as well as a character in his own right. Let us observe aspects of Simenon’s technique when interacting with the French inspector he created, Jules Maigret.
SIMENON MEETS MAIGRET
When Simenon first meets Maigret, the author immediately displays his own strong opinions: “’I find it hard to construct a character unless I know how he behaves at every moment of the day. For instance, I won’t be able to talk about millionaires until I have seen one in his dressing gown eating his boiled egg for breakfast.’” (15) Simenon is concerned with truth: ‘Truth never seems true. I don’t mean only in literature or in painting. I won’t remind you, either, of those Doric columns whose lines seem to us strictly perpendicular and which only give that impression because they are slightly curved. If they were straight, they’d look as if they were swelling, don’t you see?’”(24)
He explained to Maigret what type of people he was interested in: “’The others. Those who are made like you and me, and who end up one fine day by killing somebody without being prepared to.’” (11) Maigret was baffled by Simenon’s style: ”He still took no notes. He asked few questions. He tended, rather, to make assertions. He explained to me subsequently—and it doesn’t follow that I believed him—that a man’s reactions to an assertion are more revealing than his replies to a specific question.” (16)
“My guest looked at my pipes, my ashtrays, the black marble clock on the mantelpiece, the little enamel basin behind the door, and the towel that always smells like a wet dog.” (9) Maigret did not like him at first: “The fact is that I retained a wholly uninteresting memory of him, as uninteresting as the weather itself that day. If I made no effort to cut short his visit, it was primarily because of the Chief’s recommendation, and also because I had nothing important to do and it was, after all, a way of killing time.” (10)
In the many novels that Simenon writes about Maigret, he wants to investigate in a realistic manner the variety of crimes committed.
As a policeman, Maigret recognizes kleptomaniacs: “We had to deal with a regular clientele. Whether at Bon Marche, the Louvre, or Printemps, certain familiar figures were always to be found, usually middle-aged women, who stowed away incredible quantities of various goods in a pocket concealed between their dress and their petticoat.” (81) Aliens: “And then, in their underclothes or stark naked, men, women, and children would scurry about in the dim light, in the stench, unfastening unbelievable trunks to hunt for a passport hidden under their belongings.” (95)
He got to know prostitutes: “Ten thousand go that way, on an average, every year, ten thousand who leave their villages and start off in domestic service in Paris, and who, before a few months or a few weeks are out, will have taken the plunge.” (101) Thieves: “There will shortly be a jewel robbery because a certain specialist who has seldom been caught red-handed has begun to run short of cash. He has left his hotel on Boulevard Haussmann for a more modest one in the Republique district. He has not paid his bill for two weeks.” (101)
Gangs were much the same in the Thirties as today: “We know the rival gangs, their interests and the points at issue between them. We also know their personal hatreds and resentments.” (102) Murder was ghastly but perfunctory: “On the ground, in the sawdust and spittle, a man lies crumpled up, one hand on his breast, from which a trickle of blood is flowing to form a pool.” (120)
Even runaway girls are predictable as Maigret confronts a bereft father: “He has brought several photographs, convinced that they’ll be useful in our search. If she’s pretty, so much the worse, for the number of chances is lessened. If she’s ugly, on the contrary, she’ll probably come back in a few days, or a few weeks.” (119)
“We possess more or less exact statistics for crimes of every sort.
“And any rough guess would inevitably err in one direction or the other.
“Every three months, or six months, in Paris or in the provinces, particularly in the provinces, in some very small town or in the country, a doctor happens by chance to examine a dead body more closely than usual and is puzzled by certain symptoms.” (105)
“We have seen too much, as you can well imagine, to be shocked any longer by certain forms of wretchedness and depravity. So the latter does not arouse our indignation, nor does the former cause us the distress felt by the inexperienced spectator.” (78) “With all due deference to novelists, a policeman is, above all, a professional. He is an official.
“He’s not engaged in a guessing game, or in getting excited over a more or less 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 sidewalk cafes on the boulevards for a familiar face, or prepares to spend hours questioning a pale, terrified individual, he is doing his daily job.” (124)
MAIGRET MEETS SIMENON
Georges Simenon admits to Maigret that a novelist has to bend certain elements to appeal to a reading audience. Maigret writes: “The bookcase is full of Simenon’s books, which I have patiently stuffed with blue pencil marks, and I was looking forward to correcting all the mistakes he’s made, either because he didn’t know, or else for the sake of being picturesque, often because he didn’t have the courage to call me up to verify some detail.” (129) Simenon responds: “’Maigret old fellow, you’ll have to be kind enough to do the job yourself, because I’ve never had the courage to reread my own books.’” (129)
Maigret finds some changes serious, especially if it concerns his wife Louise. “My nephew heads the list, and I understand why. He’s her sister’s son. I got him into the police a long time ago, at an age when he was fired with enthusiasm for it.
“Simenon mentioned him, then the boy suddenly disappeared from his books, and I can guess Louise’s scruples. She’s been thinking that for some readers this may have appeared suspicious, as though her nephew had committed some stupidity.
“The truth is quite simple. He had not done as brilliantly as he had hoped. And he did not put up much resistance to his father-in-law’s pressing offers of a place in his soap factory in Marseilles.” (132)
Some changes the reader might find comical and very French. “Simenon has mentioned a certain bottle we always had in our sideboard on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir—we still have it there—and of which my sister-in-law, according to a hallowed tradition, brings us a supply from Alsace after her annual visit there.
“He has thoughtlessly described it as sloe gin.
“Actually, it is raspberry brandy. And for an Alsatian, apparently, this makes a tremendous difference.” (133)
Despite differences Maigret and Simenon became friends. Maigret recounts: “He quickly became a friend of the family, and on the few occasions when we have traveled in summer vacations it has almost always been to visit him in his various homes while he was still living in France.” (36) “Simenon was just off for Africa, where he was to spend nearly a year.
“’Why don’t you move into my apartment on Place des Vosges until the job’s finished?’” (131)
Yet, Maigret wrestled with the ultimate irony: “It’s a strange sensation to watch on the screen, coming and going, speaking and blowing his nose, a fellow who pretends to be you, who borrows certain of your habits, utters sentences that you have uttered, in circumstances that you have known, through which you have lived, in settings that have sometimes been reconstructed with meticulous care.” (31)
P.S. MRS. MAIGRET
Louise Maigret has been the linchpin between Maigret and Simenon. “Actually, she’s delighted with Simenon’s picture of her, the picture of a good housewife, always busy cooking and polishing, always fussing over her great baby of a husband. It was even because of that picture, I suspect, that she was the first to become his staunch friend, to the extent of considering him one of the family and of defending him when I haven’t dreamed of attacking him.” (64)
“’On the whole,’ Louise said, ‘I don’t see all that much difference.’
“I always look rather anxiously at her when she’s reading what I have just been writing, trying to forestall her criticisms.
‘Difference between what?’
‘Between what you say about yourself and what Simenon says about you.’” (128)
Maigret comments: “I have felt a certain embarrassment on seeing attributed to me in his books certain smiles, certain attitudes I have never assumed, which would have made my colleagues shrug their shoulders.
‘The person who has understood best is my wife. And yet, when I get back from work, she never questions me with any curiosity, whatever the case I’m concerned with.”(98)
She maintains the relationship with the entire Simenon family through the years. “’Tell the Simenons I’m knitting socks for . . .’
‘But I’m not writing them a letter, you know!’
‘Of course. Make a note of it for when you do write. They’re not to forget the photo they promised us.’
‘Can I set the table?’
“That’s all.” (134)
As a writer, I wonder about volume after volume that so many fantasy writers, especially, put out year after year. I work very hard to hammer out a handful of poems for a book every few years. Then I discovered Georges Simenon who published 11 novels in 1931alone! And continued to write 100 Maigret books as well as 250 other realistic novels. He set the level of productivity so high; critics agree that the quality remained high also.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Maigrets-Memoirs-Inspector-Maigret-Georges/dp/0241240174
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018. Ray Greenblatt has two books out for 2020: UNTIL THE FIRST LIGHT (Parnilis Media) and MAN IN A CROW SUIT (BookArts Press).