Georges Simenon's Maigret novels: A Game of Pretend with a Gallic Soul

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Among the titles recently published in the new Penguin series of the works of Belgian writer Georges Simenon are "My Friend Maigret" and "Maigret's Dead Man."

Maigret's Dead Man

By Georges Simenon

Penguin Classics.

226 pp. $12

Maigret's First Case
By Georges Simenon

Penguin Classics.

185 pp. $12

My Friend Maigret
By Georges Simenon

Penguin Classics.

178 pp. $12


Reviewed by John Domini


When the bad news arrives, it's always with a kink. For Jules Maigret, chief inspector, a case might begin with a desperate call from a stranger. Before the Paris detective can get his name, the poor man's corpse has been dumped on the street. Then again, Maigret may hear his own name bandied about, unfathomably, in connection with a murder far to the south, on a Mediterranean island.

Whatever bizarre twist sets the inspector on a killer's trail, in these classic mysteries from Georges Simenon, Maigret won't go long without stopping into a bistro. "He knew," we're told in Dead Man, "he would not be able to resist the temptation of going for a drink in the Caves du Beaujolais." Oh, and he'll take a plate andouille, as well. Down on the Cote d'Azur, he'll have the bouillabaisse.

Naturally, the fine dining never interferes with the job. Just the opposite. While the detective savors his fish pie, his calvados, he's often struck by some revelation; he cracks the case. The Maigret novels can be thought of as "police procedurals," in that they take an officer through both discovery and bureaucracy - along with some serious chills - but that procedure seems worlds apart from the system in the States. An American cop reading these novels might find himself enthralled, like so many before him, but he'll wonder whether he's working in the wrong country and century.

Simenon polished off these three Maigrets in the late 1940s. Enjoying them now, among the first of Penguin Classic's series of new translations, a reader swings from nodding at familiar predators and prey, caught in familiar snares of love or money, to feeling as though he has landed on another planet.

The free flow of liquor, the noshing, the smoking (the inspector can't think without his pipe) are only the surface strangeness. Deeper differences lurk in the class structure, as the old aristocracy fights to remain above the law, and in the limited roles of the women. Young and old, one way or another, the women live to serve.

One exception might be Maigret's wife, who now and again helps her husband claw out some buried connection. Even at such moments, however, Madame remains a stay-at-home wife. As for the women on the streets, a lot of them are in the so-called oldest profession. But then, bad girls run with bad guys, the sort of guys the detective's looking for. More significant, this author never stints on sympathy, no matter what the character's gender, or what he or she has done.

One of the most powerful moments in these novels comes in My Friend Maigret, when he confronts a brothel madam, a woman who more or less betrayed him by going into that line of work. "You do know," he grumbles, "that you're very self-interested?" But she stands up to the inspector, unapologetic: "That's what they always say about women when they try to ensure their future. And then jump on them when poverty makes them do a job that they haven't chosen."

The passage makes no small imaginative leap, entering a life very different from Simenon's, spent quietly by and large among his papers. Altogether, he produced 75 of these mysteries, along with novels of a kind he called "psychological," truer to ordinary experience. Yet, as the lady's comeback demonstrates, the Maigret books don't lack for feelings anyone might share. The translation, handled in this case by Shaun Whiteside (each of other novels uses someone else), balances a language that's slightly old-fashioned with troubles that have no expiration date.

All these books grasp, as well, what a gift Simenon had for leaving things out. His narratives move at a gallop, despite all the stops for beer and sausage, because they swing directly from the snack to the insight it triggers, and, after that, to the dialogue it provokes. The reader, too, feels like a detective in a soulful game of pretend, snatching at clues.

In the summer, John Domini brought out his latest book of short stories: "Movieola!"