I’m not the greatest fan of crime fiction – I don’t like descriptions of blood and gore – but I do like the Maigret books, and you don’t often see them around, so I was delighted to pick up three in the last couple of weeks. First there was Maigret and the Idle burglar, which I spotted in a charity shop in Ledbury while I was staying with my mother, and read and left for her to enjoy. Then My Friend Maigret and Inspector Cadaver emerged from a box of donations at Oxfam looking a little grubby, but then Maigret’s Paris is always a little grubby and down at heel. Anyway, they’ve cleaned up fine, but obviously belonged to a smoker, and the smell of stale cigarettes is hard to get rid of, so I sprinkled bicarbonate of soda and talc between the pages! I left it overnight and shook the books very carefully before starting to read – I did this once and ended up with white powder sprinkled over everything, including me! I was planning on sending these to Mum, but they are still a bit pongy, so if anyone knows any other ways to freshen them up please let me know.
Anyway, that’s quite enough of my wittering – this is supposed to be a post about Maigret who, as I’m sure you all know, was created in 1930 by Belgian author Georges Simenon, who was a prolific writer. He published more than 200 novels and a lot of short stories, including the 75 novels and 28 short stories about Superintendent Jules Maigret.
Simenon had a colourful private life (in old age he claimed to have slept with 10,000 women), and if his complicated love affairs didn’t guarantee notoriety, his conduct during WW2 did. Throughout the conflict his career continued to flourish and he was suspected of collaboration. After the war he left France for America, where he remained for 10 years: nevertheless, he was investigated, and in 1950 a five-year ban was levied on the publication of new work – the penalty for negotiating film rights for his books with German studios during the Occupation.
But whatever his morals and politics may have been, he wrote a cracking good detective story, and there’s a brilliant interview in the Paris Review archives in which he explains how he wrote. He followed advice from Colette (who rejected his early work while she was employed as a literary editor) and honed his work by paring it to the bone and making it less ‘literary’. Asked by the interviewer what words he cut, he replied:
Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.
He was a fast worker: he would knock out a novel in 11 days, writing a chapter a day (they are all short books – Simenon didn’t go in for lengthy blockbusters). Then, he says, he would cut, and cut, and cut. At the start he would scan the phone book searching for suitable names for characters, and study his town map ‘to see exactly where things happen’, then make notes on an envelope. He says:
And the beginning will be always the same; it is almost a geometrical problem: I have such a man, such a woman, in such surroundings. What can happen to them to oblige them to go to their limit? That’s the question. It will be sometimes a very simple incident, anything which will change their lives.
And he adds:
I know nothing about the events when I begin the novel. On the envelope I put only the names of the characters, their ages, their families. I know nothing whatever about the events that will occur later. Otherwise it would not be interesting to me.
Having been a professional writer myself, albeit a journalist and not a novelist, I’m always interested in the process of writing, and I found this insight into Simenon’s methods absolutely fascinating, although it confirmed my opinion that he was a very strange man indeed.
Anyway, as far as the books go I’d recommend them all, but Maigret and the Idle Burglar was my favourite, perhaps because it shows Maigret protecting the interests of a little, unimportant man, and we see him developing a feeling of respect for a man who may have been criminal, but who hurt no-one and was, after his fashion, an artiste, as skilled at his job as Maigret is at his. The novel opens with a phone call in the night, and off Maigret goes to see the battered body discovered in the Bois de Boulogne. It’s well outside his usual remit, and Maigret is supposed to be tracking down a gang of bank robbers, but something about this death disturbs him, and he refuses to write it off as a mere gangland killing.
For in the past he knew the victim, Cuendet, a quiet, inoffensive man who lives with his mother who leads a double life as a burglar, always working alone, targeting the richest houses, in the wealthiest areas, and only plying his trade when the occupants are in residence, and always ensuring there is nothing to connect him to the robbery, and that no trace of his ill-gotten gains to be found. As Maigret investigates he uncovers more secrets of Cuendet’s life, and he seems to feel an odd kinship and sympathy with the dead man. He knows who the killers are, but he knows they will never be brought to justice, because they move in rich and powerful circles.
The world of policing is not what it was when Maigret was young, and the powers that be are more interested in administration and paperwork than in good, old-fashioned detective work, and they want high profile cases, where prosecution will be successful.
In My Friend Maigret the Superintendent leaves Paris for Porquerolles, an idyllic island off the Cote d’Azur where a criminal has been killed after boasting that Maigret is a friend – and an old letter from the Superintendent has been found among the man’s possessions. The police believe Marcel Pacaud was killed because of his connection with Maigret – and they fear the Superintendent himself could be at risk. But is he the target? And could any of the island’s lazy, laid-back, pleasure-seeking inhabitants really have the energy and motivation tobe a killer? Maigret is accompanied by Mr Pyke, a Scotland Yard detective who is on a fact finding mission with the French Police, and his presence, together with the Mediterranean heat, seems to inhibit Maigret.
Away from Paris and his usual milieu he is lost and nothing seems to go his way but, as usual, his slow, gentle manner and his aimless questioning belie his sharp mind, and produce the results he needs, whether through luck, or application, it’s hard to say. I always have the feeling that Maigret’s instinct, or intuition, leads him to the truth at a very early stage of the investigations, and that he is just looking to back the knowledge up with facts.
In Inspector Cadaver the Superintendent is off on his travels again, this time to help an examining magistrate whose brother-in-law has been accused of murder after a young man, Albert Retailleau, is found dead on the railway track near his home. So Maigret finds himself in the marshlands of the Vendée, in the small town of Saint-Aubin-les-Marais, picking his way through truth and lies as he tries to separate fact from rumour.
And his efforts to find the murderer are hampered by a former colleague, the ex-inspector Cavre, known to everyone as Inspector Cadaver, who was discharged from the force for corruption and is now working as a private detective.