By Elliott CollaFebruary 15, 2015
THESE MIGHT BE Jules Maigret’s best years ever. It is not hard to picture the sardonic hero of Georges Simenon’s best-selling novels smiling down on us from policier heaven. And why wouldn’t he? Contemporary American mass culture is awash with procedurals, and Maigret’s jurisdiction now covers the entire world.
Police stories are so ubiquitous today that it is hard to remember back to when detectives tended not to be police. It’s even harder to imagine that the police hero had to be invented in the first place. But that is more or less what Simenon did back in 1930 when he created the jaded, savvy Maigret, dressed always in an overcoat, his pipe in one hand, a beer in the other, and his wife half-forgotten at home. Seventy-five titles and 80 years later, Maigret’s literary DNA pervades crime fiction from Paris to Hollywood. Maigret’s descendants are by now a motley squad spanning from the 87th Precinct of Ed McBain to the LAPD of Dragnet and James Ellroy. From Ian Rankin’s Rebus to Henning Mankell’s Wallander — from The Wire to CSI, from Dexter to True Detective — the precincts of our imagination are staffed with Maigret’s heirs.
Maigret is only now beginning to appear systematically in English, for the first time since his birth in 1930. A new generation of readers will thus discover the magic of the Maigret formula. Of course, “discover” is an odd word to use when talking about Simenon; he was hardly forgotten. Decades ago, each translation of a Maigret title became a bestseller in the United Kingdom and the United States. Between 1930 and his death in 1989, Simenon wrote more than 200 novels (under various names) and sold over 700 million books. Most of these sales were in the Inspector Maigret series. Only a handful of writers — including Shakespeare and Agatha Christie — have “sold” more than Simenon. But as these English translations fell in and out of print, the name Simenon became little more than a talisman for American audiences. We knew of Simenon, but would be excused for not having read much by him.
As Simenon’s massive library began to enter the public domain more than a decade ago, we have lost that excuse. With the 2003 centenary of Simenon’s birth, NYRB Classics commissioned 11 new and revised translations of Simenon’s celebrated romans durs. And now, since 2013, Penguin Books has committed itself to bringing out the 75 books of the Maigret series in an orderly fashion. All of these numbers had been published before in translations, although most of them only haphazardly and often in odd “omnibus” formats. But now they will be available, for the first time in their entirety, and with smooth new English translations that do credit to the originals’ silky economy of language.
Maigret might enjoy this, but Simenon might not. The Belgian author had a vexed relationship with the Maigret series. On the one hand, Maigret made him that rarest of things — a genuinely rich writer. On the other hand, the Maigret series ensured that his literary reputation would forever after be based on market, rather than aesthetic, values.
Maybe now critics will give Maigret his due. Maybe all those sprawling crime television series of the last 15 years have taught us that some literary titles are to be treated not as individual, stand-alone works but as fragments of a vaster system of stories and characters, situations and themes. And now maybe those of us who expect great novelists to write fat novels will grasp what Simenon meant, in The Paris Review, when he responded to everyone who dismissed his work as low-brow:
All the critics for twenty years have said the same thing: “It is time for Simenon to give us a big novel, a novel with twenty or thirty characters.” They do not understand. I will never write a big novel. My big novel is the mosaic of all my small novels. You understand?
Now that the entire Inspector Maigret series is coming out, we can read Simenon’s small novels as a huge mosaic — and conceivably, in their sum, as one great big novel. Certainly anyone who wants to binge-read Maigret titles will find them to be well worth the pleasure. In them, Simenon shows himself to be a committed stylist as well as an endlessly inventive storyteller. True, the Maigret novels are conventional. For fetishists of the ever new, this in itself is a mortal sin. For the rest of us, however, it need not be: these novels were never meant to be read as wholly original creations, but rather as variations on a pattern. And in fairness to Simenon, he never repeated himself, and for the most part the pattern he worked with was of his own invention.
A glimpse of this originality is on full display in the first 10 Inspector Maigret novels, which Simenon published in a single year — 1931. Already in these first novels, Simenon had developed a unique ability to sketch fine human psychologies with incredible economy. While others might take pages to flesh out a character, Simenon knows how to do so in telegraph form, drawing one man by the stains on an overcoat and a woman by how she buttons her blouse. Similarly, it is remarkable how Simenon captures the sense of place in these novels with only a few words, and always in relation to the interior experience of characters. For instance, in A Crime in Holland, not only is the landscape of a Dutch village revealed in brief, jabbing strokes, but more importantly, so too is their impression on the inspector:
The sky was clear, the air of astonishing limpidity. The inspector walked past a timber yard where planks of oak, mahogany and teak were stacked in piles as tall as houses.
A boat was moored alongside. Some children were playing. Then came a kilometre with no outstanding features. Floating tree trunks covered the surface of the canal, all the way. White fences surrounding fields dotted with magnificent cows.
Another clash between reality and his preconceived ideas. The word ‘farm’ for Maigret conjured up a thatched roof, a dunghill, a bustle of barnyard fowls.
And he found himself facing a fine newly built structure, surrounded by a garden full of flowers. Moored in the canal in front of the house was an elegant mahogany skiff. And propped against the gate, a lady’s bicycle, gleaming with nickel.
Here and elsewhere, Simenon sketches the outlines of a world and allows his readers to fill in the blanks. In fact, such blank spaces — “a kilometre with no outstanding features” — are key to Simenon’s style. Together, they signal Simenon’s confidence that his readers were like cinematographers: they needed few stage directions, since the rest of the shoot would take place in their imaginations.
Already in these first Maigret novels, Simenon had developed his skill for pacing. These stories start with a bang and conclude only days and hours after they begin — and yet they never feel rushed. For all these reasons, the Maigret titles read sometimes more like screenplays than novels.
It is the character of his detective, Jules Maigret, that stands out most in these stories. Like all great detectives, Maigret has a method. His is remarkable only for its banality — he watches the lives of criminals and victims, without judging or rejecting them, without commenting on them, for those observations allow him to do his job. Maigret regularly steps into the dark underworlds of criminal France — but he never pretends to be more logical, clever, or sophisticated than the people he meets.
In this way, the character of Maigret allowed Simenon to offer crime stories that transcend morality and pathology. Indeed, the world of Maigret is not bifurcated into opposing sides, with evil criminals on one team and righteous defenders of justice on the other. In Maigret, neither the criminals nor the cops are particularly eccentric or unusual — they both belong to society and live in society. Much as Émile Zola had methodically explored the central problems of modernity (urbanization, industrialization, class conflict, immigration) as they played out in the key sites and institutions of modern society, the Maigret series presents a similar sociological aspiration, albeit without the detail or scope of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. And yet the character of Maigret allows Simenon to explore these issues with a more objective sociology than Zola’s.
Before Maigret, detective fiction was not particularly sociological. The giants of the genre — Doyle, Christie, Chesterton, and Sayers — were too caught up in the fantasies of a triumphant capitalist class to be much interested in other social realities. Their detectives — Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown, and Lord Peter Wimsey — were content with playing genteel logic games in drawing rooms and restoring property to owners.
Simenon had more in common with the hard-boiled authors of his time — Hammett, Chandler, and even Woolrich — who punched the genre in the gut and tossed it into the street. Sleuths like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe poked around back alleys, broken homes, and in other places where society’s rougher edges showed. When these dicks entered the drawing rooms of the bourgeoisie, it was often through a broken window, and what they discovered there was that property was the real crime. But as sociological as these hard-boiled writers could be, they never attempted to be systematic. Simenon’s Maigret, however, combined the street smarts and gut intuition of noir antiheroes with the method and consistency of the effete detective. In doing so, Simenon paved the way for detective fiction to become the most sociological of genres.
But there is another wholly original aspect to Maigret’s character — he was a cop. Until Simenon, the heroes of detective fiction operated outside (and often against) official police agencies. The classical detective — like the private eye — was motivated by a private or personal rather than public sense of justice and law. For Holmes — as for Marlowe — the game would likely put you in conflict with the police. Cops, when they appear, are usually flat-footed buffoons who can never catch up to the detective. Maigret might appear flat-footed and less than clever, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a great detective.
The implications of making his protagonist an inspector with the police judiciaire go far beyond the matter of character, however. They effectively change the story of crime itself. By making this choice, Simenon added an original and endlessly productive dimension to detective fiction, that of jurisdiction. As ubiquitous as the concept is now, we should remember that it implies three important things: 1.) a legal authority rooted in public institutions; 2.) a system of routine fact-finding procedures; and 3.) a power that is always delimited geographically.
These features give the Maigret series much of its dynamism, linking character, plot, and location in tight organic patterns. For instance, Maigret’s authority and likability as a character stem from the fact that he works in a state office. In doing so, Simenon effectively reconceptualized crime as a legal issue. He bucked the essentially conservative tendency of detective fiction, which, according to Ernest Mandel, was to tell stories about the ruling class and the various threats posed to its property, and allowed the genre to move beyond the limits of bourgeois morality. Maigret is, in the end, a bureaucrat, working within a complex institution whose values are professional rather than moral or merely class-based. And his character strengths mirror the demands of his job: his ability to talk to criminals — to empathize with and inhabit their reasoning — is indispensable to his work as a detective, as is his ability to blend in — as a sort of citoyen everyman — into whatever social landscape he enters.
Similarly, the plot unfolds always in relation to a procedural system of investigation, and an administrative system that allocates information and resources to the forensic investigator. Maigret’s brilliance lies not in his individual talent, but rather in his commitment to seeing routine procedures through to their conclusion. This, again, is in complete contrast to the eccentric sleuths of the classical mystery: it is hard to imagine Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey holding down any job. After Maigret, we come to expect the drama of doing routine work to be a central part of the detective’s story.
However, it is the other sense of jurisdiction — as specific terrain of authority — that sets Maigret’s stories apart from what came before. Simenon chose for Maigret to be assigned to the “flying squad” of the police judiciaire — the central office, in Paris, of the Police Nationale. (The closest analogue in the United States would be the FBI.) This puts Maigret at odds with the dynamics of most contemporary police stories, in which the geographic and administrative limitations of jurisdiction become a central part of the story — and in which it matters that a police investigator, unlike a private eye, cannot go anywhere to investigate anything. In the Maigret novels, the detective has an apparently limitless jurisdiction. He is less often found rambling through Paris than across the surrounding districts and departments of Île-de-France, and beyond, to Belgium, Holland, and Germany. Maigret crosses borders and jurisdictions often and with surprising ease, encountering problems of translation between national languages and conversion between national currencies. The geographical dimension of these novels is well worth pondering, since they offer a glimpse of a Europe that was already quite integrated, albeit unevenly, decades before the EU was even a dream.
All the early Maigret novels are characterized by an unusual attention to the dangers and opportunities of movement and connection. The emergence of massive transportation and communication networks are the central plot fact in all the stories — and in order to track crime, Maigret has to navigate a web of international train routes (The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, The Late Monsieur Gallet), canal systems (The Carter of ‘La Providence’, A Crime in Holland), sea lanes (The Yellow Dog, The Grand Banks Café), telegraph and telephone systems, and, eventually, interurban roads (Night at the Crossroads). If Maigret is not in a train station or port or roadside bar, he is probably en route to one.
By mapping out the emergent networks of French modernity as a sprawling social geography, Simenon turned crime writing toward serious sociological reflection. Take, for instance, the enigmatic opening lines of Pietr the Latvian: “ICPC to PJ Paris Xvzust Krakow vimontra m ghks triv psot uv Pietr-le-Letton Bremen vs tyz btolem.” Maigret translates the phrase, which, we learn, is composed in the language of a continental network of police agencies. Rendered legible, the words read: “International Criminal Police Commission to Police Judiciaire in Paris: Krakow police report sighting Pietr the Latvian en route to Bremen.” The next memo reads: “Polizei-Präsidium Bremen to PJ Paris: Pietr the Latvian reported en route Amsterdam and Brussels.” These memos and others sketch a colorful map of overlapping networks: a rail that could take a Latvian national through Poland and Germany, then Holland and Belgium and on to France; a police network linking the national polices of these various countries in a single system of knowledge and surveillance; and, of course, a communication network linking these two systems — rail and policing — to one another in real-time.
The rest of the novel fills out this geography, and indicates just how exhilarating and terrifying it was for Simenon to witness the emergence of this interwar landscape where polyglot nations intersected and interpenetrated each other by way of crime and interdiction. Bodies, goods, and information travel back and forth across borders with near infinite possibilities. This movement is what makes crime possible, by allowing men to leave their pasts behind or to inhabit more than one identity at a time.
These networks give rise to the particular forms of crime that Maigret is called to investigate, most of which revolve around smuggling rings and the possibility of identity theft as criminal gangs master the capacities, gaps, and loopholes made possible by a networked Europe. It is on this point we can begin to appreciate why the vagabond, the itinerant worker, and the immigrant industrial laborer — and, in Simenon’s anti-Semitic moments, the non-national character of the Jew — appear so often in the Maigret stories as markers of danger and depravity. What hangs in the balance, of course, is social order. And in the case of Maigret, it is a wholly reactionary sense of order, premised on a desire to undo the crimes and damages unleashed upon Europe by the emergence of these modern networks, a desire for nationals — citizens, languages, and currencies — to remain on their proper sides of the borders and within their jurisdictions.
In weighing the expansive description of society in the Maigret series against its reactionary surface politics, we would do well to remember a basic point made by the Marxist critic Georg Lukács in his seminal studies of European realism. For Lukács, the political message of a novel was not to be found in its explicit slogans or character sympathies, but rather in its relation to the concept of totality. Lukács probably never deigned to read the Maigret series. But if he had, he would have discovered that despite their reactionary surface character, they produced the kind of literary vision he demanded of the novel form. That vision involved imagining society not in parts but as a single totality, with all of its conflicts and contradictions. Besides Simenon, few crime writers — perhaps only George Pelecanos, David Peace, and Paco Ignacio Taibo II in the contemporary period — have attempted to describe social totality in the sense that Lukács meant. It is this attention to the totalized aspect of modern European societies that makes the Maigret series as timely as ever.
Elliott Colla is associate professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is author of Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Duke University Press, 2007). He has translated many works of contemporary Arabic literature, including Ibrahim Aslan’s novel, The Heron, Idris Ali's Poor, Ibrahim al-Koni's Gold Dust, and Rabai al-Madhoun's The Lady from Tel Aviv.
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