In the 1963 film The Wrong Arm of the Law (penned by Galton and Simpson in their pomp) Peter Sellers, as arch criminal-cum-ladies fashion designer, Pearly Gates, taps his skull and brags: ‘I’ve got schemes going off in here that’d make Maigret drop his pipe.’
I doubt it.
Writing in the so-called Golden Age of crime fiction, Maigret’s creator, Georges Simenon, stands head and shoulders above his crime contemporaries. This is largely because the Maigret books aren’t crime novels in the sense of say Agatha Christie – though there is generally a puzzle of some kind to be unravelled – but rather, they are expeditions into people’s lives. Which is what real police work – particularly that of the detective – is about. You are turning over rocks and looking under carpets, to see what is lurking there and what has been swept out of sight.
Other than a few contemporary touches – the descriptions of cars, the tendency to drink liqueurs, descriptions of life when goods were hauled on the canals, and so on – the novels feel very modern. The prose hasn’t dated (reading the books in English, I’m not sure how much of this is down to the translator). The novels are not twee, but neither are they unnecessarily hard boiled or callous. They are the inquiries of a pragmatic man carried out honestly and without artifice. Maigret sees people for who and what they are, money, social position (or the lack of) make no difference. He probes humanity, and it is the nature of the individual that interests (and occasionally impresses, more frequently disgusts) him. He is a good man, and fair, and values human justice above the artificial tenets of the law (The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien). And he isn’t a snob – which is perhaps one of the reasons his books have survived without shame, unlike many of Simenon’s Golden Age colleagues.
On almost every page there is something to admire. Some little touch of detail, or a reflection of Maigret’s. He had never paid too much attention to her. He’d thought she was a sturdy girl, well upholstered, but without a nerve in her body… Was it thoughtlessness, transcendent irony? In any case, she was holding something back. Maigret could tell. Not all the pus had come out… The weather was neither fine nor foul. A luminous grey morning sky, unbroken, like a frosted glass ceiling…
Simenon is obviously a little bit in awe of Jules Maigret, and clearly admires the detective’s imposing physicality – plenty of mention of his mammoth shoulders and imposing bulk. He imparts the idea that Maigret is there to put things right, and that Maigret’s size implies moral certainty. The detective couldn’t be a slight man (which is one reason I couldn’t watch Rowan ‘Mr. Bean’ Atkinson in the role – I don’t think Simenon would have approved of the casting).
The books are short (generally no more than 150 pages), but manage to pack a wealth of experience and insight into their slim covers. Were they longer I think they’d lose impact. And in some instances the intensity would become mentally tiring. Like a real detective, Maigret is in and out of the lives he encounters as quickly as possible. It’s healthier that way.