I actually was late in discovery Inspector Maigret. After my grandmother died there was no one to keep up my French with. I even wound up taking a refresher course at Georgetown University to keep from losing it all. Then in a used bookstore I found some cheap old French paperbacks. Some were classics like The Three Musketeers but several were the mysteries of Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon featuring Inspector Maigret. Jules Amedée François Maigret, referred to as simply Jules Maigret or Maigret by most people, is a fictional French police detective, actually a commissaire or commissioner of the Paris Brigade Criminelle (Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris). The Police judiciaire, abbreviated PJ, is the criminal investigation division of the Police nationale, the civilian police.
Simenon was a prolific author who wrote seventy-six novels and twenty-eight short stories about Maigret between 1931 and 1972, starting with Pietr-le-Letton(Peter the Lett) and concluding with Maigret et Monsieur Charles (Maigret and Monsieur Charles). The short stories were written earlier on. Of the 28 short stories, 28 were published in 1938, the rest between 1939 and 1946 with a final story Maigret’s Christmas published in 1950. And even though publication of the books spanned over four decades, the first ten came out in 1931, with seven more the following year.
This is probably at least partly the result of years of working in pulp fiction, often under pen names, where pay was by the word. Fortunately, in 1931 he came up with a character that would free him from this drudgery, French Inspector Jules Maigret. The perceptive, pipe-smoking detective Maigret was an immediate hit in France and soon, all around the world. Yet in spite of the demand from the public for more Maigret, Simenon, like Conan Doyle yearned to do other things. Not unhappy about being a newly rich and famous mystery writer, he still wanted respect as a “serious” writer, so in 1934, he retired his famous detective with a book simply titled Maigret.
While his other works were successful and garnered critical respect, the Inspector was the goose that laid golden eggs and so he was recalled from retirement to support the lifestyle Simenon wanted. Simenon’s life was as messy and complicated as those of the characters Maigret investigates but that is another story. In spite of WWII Maigret was back. And like Conan Doyle’s Holmes he was welcomed heartily. Like Doyle, Simenon knew how to endlessly create new adventures for his detective that immediately engaged readers, plunging them into cafes and back alleys peopled with colorful characters and ending in the triumph of Maigret’s justice. Maigret’s Paris becomes as familiar to us as Holmes’s London.
Maigret is also enjoyable to be with through the pages of his stories. He is a policeman and he can handle himself but he is not the excessive tough guy so often portrayed in detective stories of the mid-twentieth century. Neither is he like the solitary loners also often portrayed. Maigret is content in a warm and satisfying marriage to Louise, Madame Maigret, with whom he has a good home life. He is a good man, honest and fair as a policeman, often showing compassion for the down and out characters he encounters in his work. He understands people, and these insights usually lead him to his solutions. In this respect he is perhaps more like Miss Marple, who based her deductions on her knowledge of village personalities, rather than the puzzle solving detectives like Holmes or Hercule Poirot. He is much more of a humanist than the standard police detectives of the day. He insists he “has no method” and rarely relies on deductive legerdemain or melodramatic interrogation. He works his way his way into the head of either victim or suspect. It is speculated that after the first few novels some of the character of Maigret was influenced by a Chief Inspector Marcel Guillaume, who became a long-time friend of Simenon.
You don’t have to read French to enjoy the exploits of he inspector. They have been translated into 41 languages and in 2013 Penguin books began the process of reissuing the complete Maigret series: 76 novels and 28 short stories in new translations. This appeals to me because I’ve never had the chance to read most of the short stories as they were published in magazines. I haven’t read all the novels either, but I have enjoyed those I have read. I not only enjoy Maigret and his faithful assistants at work and his interaction with Madame Maigret but the interesting characters who people the stories. Because Maigret works by getting into their psychology, Simenon created people who went beyond the cardboard stereotypes of many mysteries. Also, you get to see the changing Paris and other parts of France over the decades and subtly absorb the customs and tastes of the French people of all classes. All this and interesting mysteries have made Maigret one of the most popular detectives of all time.