FEBRUARY 26, 2015
PARIS, THE CITY OF LIGHT: for crime fiction readers, the image conjured has traditionally been one of a brightly lit Eiffel Tower, the gurgling Seine against a backdrop of gray, overcast sky, and perhaps a corpse or two in the cobbled streets — discovered, of course, by Georges Simenon’s pipe-smoking Inspector Jules Maigret.
I fell in love with Paris — or the idea of Paris, anyway — because of my father, whose slender Inspector Maigret novels always intrigued me. My first visit to the city sparked the realization that Paris was everything I’d been promised, and more. It was a love affair in overdrive. I couldn’t learn enough about the city of light, and its darker secrets. Blame it on Inspector Maigret.
Though Maigret’s era passed long ago, it’s not all history. His “old office” at 36 Quai des Orfévres, the Paris Prefecture (often referred to as “36”), belongs to a trim 40-something Commissaire with a laptop; gone is the charcoal-burning stove. Maigret’s Sûreté is no more, but has been restructured and renamed the Brigade Criminelle, Paris’s elite homicide squad. From time immemorial, officers have hung bloody clothing from crime scenes to dry under the rafters in the attic. This tradition hasn’t changed. Nor has the rooftop view, courteously shown to me by a member of the Brigade Criminelle, a vista with the Seine and all of Paris before us. And beneath us are 36’s underground holding cells, which date from the Revolution, if not further back, as a policewoman friend told me.
The juxtaposition of light and dark is a vital part of the noir ambiance that drives me to explore the dark corners of Paris, where no one else is looking.
That’s my job — to write stories about crime and murder à la parisienne, set in contemporary Paris. The streets are the same as they were in Maigret’s time, but today’s Fifth Republic Paris is a blended wealth of cultural traditions from all over the world. For me, this means there are new enclaves and hidden worlds to encounter, no matter how well I think I know these cobbled streets.
To know Paris, as Baudelaire, Edmund White, and countless others have observed, one must be a flâneur, taking strolls through the city, letting the unexpected moods wash over you and remaining open to discovery — in my case, with an eye for crime. One must take the pulse of a quartier, assessing its rhythm; know it by heart, from the lime trees flanking its boulevards to its 19th-century passages couverts. Only when I can feel that pulse can I start the rest of my research for a novel.
A writer, like a detective, must follow her nose, as the old adage goes; when a word rings false, when the indefinable something-isn’t-right moment happens — that is the moment to wonder, to ask questions. The exchange of a furtive glance, a figure ducking out of sight into the back of a café and failing to reemerge. In Paris, those who want to disappear could do so via the spare exit gate of a back courtyard, into the city’s series of covered passageways, even over the gray zinc rooftops or underground through a cellar or an old World War II bomb shelter. All a writer needs is that “what if,” and a story tumbles out. I imagine the line at the tabac by Pigalle Métro station evaporating, the group of teens breaking off into threes to pickpocket unsuspecting tourists; an artist in a tiny fifth-floor den closing her shutters to block out street noise; a man nonchalantly entering a jewelry store in the “golden triangle” off the Champs-Élysées with a gun to perform one in a series of daytime robberies. How I long to get it right, to reflect the Paris of the novels with its hidden courtyards and criminal underbelly — the Paris Inspector Maigret haunted. In order to do this, it’s important to go out drinking with flics, the local cops. Lucky enough to receive such an invitation one night, I joined several at the bar across the Seine from 36, where they’d taken over a back table.
An intoxicated young man looking for a fight entered the bar and approached us at our table — a table of off-duty police officers. Who knows why? Bad luck, I suppose. He began a drunken monologue … if you’ve had such an encounter, you know the kind. This young man was the kind you wished would leave before he got belligerent. A few of the officers spoke with him and escorted him out. He sat down on the pavement outside, and one of the admin police, who resembled an accountant, stayed behind to join him on the curb across from la maison, as the Prefecture is called. This policeman spoke with him for a long time amid the smokers and passersby, talking him down rather than talking down to him. I’d gone outside for a cigarette and noticed them carrying on a conversation. I didn’t get involved, as I didn’t have anything to add, nor did I wish to accidentally provoke someone so inebriated. When I came out again later, they were still talking. The flic was kindly asking questions now. Maybe the kid had broken up with his girlfriend, lost his job, or just had a really bad day. I never found out.
It was something the flic didn’t have to do, with all his buddies inside drinking. Whether he enjoyed getting out of the bar, the view of the Seine, or just talking with this kid, it really struck me as something Jules Maigret would have done. Maigret, the knowing, sometimes fatherly figure who knew people would tell you their story if you just coaxed it out of them. Averting disaster, heading off a confrontation, recognizing the signs that a situation could spin out of control — maybe that was part of what they taught at the police academy. By the time the young man (who was still, in my opinion, one slice short of a baguette, sobriety-wise) finally left, he had a smile on his face. I’ll never know what exactly happened to him after that, but I had the feeling he would just go home and sleep it off. He wouldn’t feel denigrated or demoralized in the morning, except for a hangover.
Georges Simenon kept his storylines simple, often using no more than a 2,000 word vocabulary and economical descriptions, keeping his stories brief to appeal to a broader audience. But deeper themes and insights into human psychology lie at the core of his characters. No penny dreadful, each Maigret novel is a quick read but makes a major impact. You can pick one up, read it, and walk away with a deeper understanding of the human psyche. His characters, from the crew at the Prefecture, investigators, and flics on their daily beat, to the victims’ neighbors, hotel concierges, and even Paris itself, really speaks to readers.
With countless television adaptions of Simenon’s work in the UK, France, and other parts of Europe, everyone knows of the pipe-smoking Maigret. These novels capture a time, a part of Paris that exists now only in the imagination. It was a time when cell phones and numeric entry keypads were unheard of — one could only ring the concierge’s bell to gain entry after midnight. Everyone knew everyone else’s business in a city with enclosed courtyards, high walls, and watchful eyes. Parisians smoked and drank morning, noon, and night. Men’s wool overcoats and hats steamed as they came in from a wet winter evening to a warm, charcoal-stove-burning café. People knew their neighbors. Snitches snitched. Girlfriends chatted with each other and mother-in-laws complained — human connections abound, often forming a web of lies and deceit. But Maigret keeps at it — plodding, questioning, then throwing out those questions, lighting his pipe when it goes out, and the suspect in the chair opposite him knows it’s only a matter of time. As does Maigret. He drinks at lunch, sometimes he gets angry, even orders sandwiches and beer in the afternoon. He takes the annual August vacances with Madame Maigret unless a case comes up — but when doesn’t it? — and detains him in hot, deserted Paris. But a few of his investigations find him out in the countryside, in those small, hermetically sealed villages where observant eyes don’t miss a thing.
That hasn’t changed. Even though I’ve made regular visits to the same village in southern France for over 20 years, I’m still l’Américaine. I’ve been guest at several of the locals’ weddings, heard about their husbands’ affairs … I’d like to think they trust me now. After all, I’ve been into their homes, which is considered an honor and no mean feat, but in many ways I’m still the outsider.
Georges Simenon, originally from Belgium, arrived in Paris as an outsider too. He wrote a wealth of books apart from the Maigret series, many of which have been and continue to be the inspiration for films that play in the city’s theaters.
I confess that when I first began writing my Aimée Leduc novels, I would think, Okay. There’s a murder, a staircase dripping with blood … what would Inspector Maigret do? That wasn’t always much help, since Aimée is a PI, not a policewoman. But then I’d consider what she might do if Maigret appeared on the scene and questioned her after she had found the body. That worked a little better. Of course, the police system in place now is different: Jules Maigret, as the head Commissaire, would certainly not respond in person. Today, it would be the Brigade Criminelle and le procureur (the equivalent of our DA) who would hotfoot it to the scene and dictate the next steps in the investigation. I had to change my way of thinking about police process in a murder investigation, my flic friends told me. The way Maigret operated didn’t make for a plausible scenario now. So I relearned in order to keep the details in my books accurate, and came to the conclusion that Maigret had it easier than a head Commissaire would today.
In Maigret’s world, there are confessions. There is order.
Is Simenon’s work dated? Historical? Timeless? I’d argue the second two. I personally like my Paris streets dark and narrow, with glistening cobblestones, the air thick with mist and suspicion. The Montmartre cemetery wall, the same as it was then, hulking with old, lichen-covered stone; I’ve imagined a corpse there more than once. Returning late at night from the last Métro, walking uphill from Place de Clichy, the cinéma marquees dark, the café lights fading as I cross over the cemetery, I hear the thrum of the old Citroën or Renault engine, the shift of gears, and smell the cherry tobacco. (I like to think he smoked cherry tobacco, though I don’t know that it’s ever specified; perhaps there’s a Simenon scholar out there who can tell me.) Flashlights illuminate the corpse sprawled on the damp pavement. Maigret nods to his lieutenant with a, “Take this down,” and we’re off on an investigation. An investigation that leads to the hidden life behind the walls, intrigue in the quartier, and worlds we’d never visit otherwise.
The iconic Prefecture at 36 Quai des Orfèvres is now falling to pieces, the flics say — well-worn and tired around the edges, ancient and unequipped to handle the new technology the force needs. They’re moving to a brand-new building that’s designed to gather all the gendarme divisions in one place. It’s in the 17th near the Batignolles park, and the old train switching yards, unused for many years. Had France gotten the 2012 Olympic bid that went to England, this was where the Olympic Village would have been. I’m kind of glad that never happened. As some flics point out, the move has been long slated, but with the current budget crisis, there’s an advantage to keeping the current headquarters. The genius of being in the very center of Paris is that the city Tribunal is right next door. Prisoners awaiting trial literally go from their holding cells to the court through an ancient underground tunnel. A friend, a flic whose first assignment out of the academy was escorting those in custody from their ancient, funky cells to the court, aptly described the surroundings as “medieval.” That’s just one example of an aspect of Maigret’s time that still applies today.
Boulevard Richard Lenoir is where the Inspector lived with Madame Maigret. I confess to making a pilgrimage to their apartment building. While I know it’s a fictional building, I couldn’t resist scoping it out. I imagined myself saying, “It would be this street number and, yes, just as Simenon described.” Years later, riding a Vélib’, a cycle from the city-wide bike share, I returned home late to find that all the stations near my lodgings on the Canal Saint-Martin were full. Zut! It was late and drizzling, and I was hungry and looking to rest my aching feet. Finally, I found a single empty spot for my bicycle: on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, right below the Maigret apartment. How I wished Madame Maigret were still up waiting for Jules, warming a pot of cassoulet on the stove, and that he’d be returning from an investigation into the darker side of the City of Light. But for now, I’ll just pick up one of those slender Simenon novels.