Saturday 18 February 2012

Rediscovering Maigret

Notre Dame, which has nothing to with the story, but last time
I went  to Paris we ate lunch in a cafe near Shakespeae and Company
and this was the view, and it makes me happy to look at it.
Well, here I am, still in Paris, in spirit, if not in body – but it’s not really the fault of the Hemingways because I had put in a request at the library for any of Simenon’s Maigret books and, just as I was reading The Paris Wife, back came The Hotel Majestic, along with The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West. Then, when I went to collect them, I spotted Frank Barker’s Miss Hargreaves, which is fantastic, but I will write about that another day since I am sticking with France for the time being.

It’s a long time since I read a Maigret novel, and I’d forgotten how well Georges Simenon conjures up the sleazy Parisian underworld. Here the blonde, French wife of a wealthy American industrialist is found dead in a locker in the staff cloakroom, down in the basement of an upmarket hotel. She has been strangled, but in her bag is a gun... Investigations reveal she has a past, for before her marriage Mimi was a nightclub dancer and had an affair with the chef who finds the body... Then there is her husband who wants to marry the governess who helps care for the couple’s young son...

Soon, the body of the night porter is discovered: he too has been strangled and stuffed into a locker at the hotel. But never fear, Superintendent Jules Maigret, Head of the Special Squad of the Judicial Police, is on the case, with his pipe, his bowler hat, and his deceptively slow manner, which belies his astonishing powers of observation and deduction. His queries take him from Paris to Cannes as he moves through a world of bars, nightclubs, and the hidden part of hotels where the staff work long, hard hours, unseen by the guests. Among those he questions are the dead woman’s former friends, Gigi, a raddled, drug addicted prostitute, and kind-hearted Charlotte, who has grown too plump to dance and now lives with Prosper Donge, Mimi’s old lover. Donge himself, described by everyone as ‘a good man’, becomes the chief suspect, but Maigret is not convinced and runs into conflict with the magistrate in charge of the case.

It’s difficult to go into too much detail without giving the ending away – and that would never do.

Suffice to say that after all the questioning Maigret works out the who and the why, though personally I am positive he identifies the murderer right at the outset (something to do with a shifty look, perhaps). Even at this early stage he may have some inkling of the motive, but he needs to prove his case, so he sets about uncovering the truth. He can give those who don’t know him the impression that he is a bit of a bungler, doing things almost by chance, without any particular purpose, and he was sneaking in vital questions in a casual way long before Columbo got in on the act.“Looking at him, you would have thought he was making an amateurish study of how a grand hotel functions,” writes Simenon at one point. But Maigret is actually very methodical: intuition may play a part in the way he works, but he knows he needs facts to prove a case, and I think he believes the end justifies the means, so if he doesn’t always do things by the book it doesn’t matter. He is utterly ruthless about catching criminals and ensuring they are punished for doing wrong.  

I always imagine Maigret must look like
his creator Georges Simenon - perhaps
 it's the pipe that does it.
Maigret doesn’t immediately strike you as being a clever psychologist, but he is. He understands what makes people tick, likes to see them in their own environment, and is able to predict the way they will behave. At times he is disarmingly simple and friendly – a technique he uses in the hopes that people will let information slip in an unguarded moment. (Columbo does that as well. I’m a big fan of Columbo, in case you hadn’t noticed).

 I really enjoyed this. It’s a pacy read, which keeps you guessing all the way through, and even though I’d seen the TV series with Michael Gambon I still couldn’t work out who dunnit. I would read some more, but I think The Hotel Majestic is the only Maigret book that Staffordshire Libaries have in stock. 


  1. I keep meaning to read more. I so like the character.

  2. I'm going to Paris next week and staying in a hotel that overlooks Notre Dame (thanks to a brilliant internet deal)... I daresay I'll be popping into Shakespeare and Company too. I've ordered The Paris Wife to take with me as well.