Monday, May 9, 2016

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.    

THE MAIGRET NOVELS by Georges Simenon (all first published between 1931 and 1972)

            As I noted once before on this blog, time was that I used to haunt second-hand bookshops, looking for any oddities or classics that I desired. But, should I be seeking pure entertainment, my default setting was a search for two types of novels. The Historical Fiction of AlfredDuggan [see post thereupon] or the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon (1903-1989).

Of Simenon and his unlovely personality I have spoken before [see the post about his Les Inconnus dans la Maison]. This was the French-speaking Belgian who had a disorderly sex addiction, but whose working methods were super-orderly and disciplined. He wrote – literally – hundreds of novels from when he was a teenager until his death in 1989.

Simenon’s novels are all short. He never took longer than a week to write a novel, averaging about fifty pages a day on his typewriter. He was methodical. He wrote more “romans durs” (“serious novels”) than the detective novels featuring his most famous creation, Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris Surete. Even so there are 75 Maigret novels, beginning with The Strange Case of Peter the Lett (Pietr-le-Letton) in 1931 and ending with Maigret et Monsieur Charles in 1972. Simenon also wrote 28 short stories featuring Maigret, but he gave up on these in 1950, about halfway through Maigret’s career. The reason is fairly obvious. Short stories of detection rely for their effect on ingenuity - some trick or an individual piece of evidence which requires the cracking of clues. This is the method with Sherlock Holmes (about whom Arthur Conan Doyle wrote dozens of short stories but only four novels). But Maigret is more interested in motive and character, and hence Simenon preferred to place his hero in novels where motive and character could be explored.

So why do I enjoy these novels so much? Paradoxically, it is partly because they are so short, as novels go. You can read a Maigret novel at a sitting – or maybe two sittings if you don’t have two straight hours to spare. Simenon’s technique is virtually the opposite of the average English detective novel. Instead of featuring multiple suspects and multiple twists of plot, the Maigret novels will have only a handful of suspects, and there will often be detailed interrogation scenes, which usually serve to reveal the sadness and tawdriness of lives based on cheap dreams, which have led to crime.

Simenon had a very pessimistic view of human nature. As often as not, murders are sheeted home to tensions within dysfunctional or otherwise unhappy (and usually bourgeois) families. Pipe-smoking Maigret himself lives an exemplary middle-class life. He likes a good white wine. His complaisant wife keeps house for him and she sometimes gets anxious when he doesn’t return home for a meal. She is, of course, an excellent cook, although occasionally Inspector and Madame Maigret like to visit a restaurant. They have no children. In La Folle de Maigret we learn that Maigret sometimes regrets this and envies the police inspector from Toulon who has an amiable teenage son. Maigret does the groundwork for an investigation, with an assortment of subordinates (Janvier, Lucas etc.) doing much of the legwork. Then he enjoys interrogating suspects in such a way that they fall into verbal traps he lays for them. And he has a high moral sense. Sometimes he loses his temper with people when he discovers that they really are murderers and cheats. There is no indication in the novels that Maigret is a practising religious person or ever goes to church, but he sometimes does remember nostalgically when he was an altar boy. As I remarked in my comments on Les Inconnus dans la Maison, Maigret is in many respects the quiet and orderly man that the libidinous and disorderly Simenon would have liked to be.

I read many Maigret novels before I adopted the habit of jotting down, in a notebook, things about my reading – but here are six good ones that did get notebook space:

* My Friend Maigret (Mon Ami Maigret, 1948). Because a murdered man was heard to refer to him as “my friend Maigret”, Maigret goes outside his usual Parisian jurisdiction to investigate a murder on the Riviera. With him there comes an English detective, Mr Pyke, who is over from Scotland Yard to examine French police methods. This is the basis for some light running comedy as Maigret feels he cannot do various things so as not to embarrass the Englishman, or not be embarrassed in front of him. (Note that Maigret takes it for granted he can get information out of suspects by giving them the third degree.) The Englishman’s presence is also convenient as some of the characters under investigation are English. The plot, more complex than most Maigrets, concerns a scheme involving fraud in the art world.

* Maigret and the Lazy Burglar (Maigret et le Voleur Paresseux, 1961) A man is found dead in the Bois de Boulogne, with his face smashed in, apparently to render identification harder. But he was clearly killed somewhere else and then dumped in the Bois. Of course I will not reveal the solution to this one, but it is a very simple mystery. Its chief interest is in Maigret’s mildly anti-authoritarian attitudes as he nears retirement age and resents the fussy, paper-filling methods of a younger generation of police superiors. As so often in Simenon, there is a transference of guilt so that the burglar emerges as a more innocent person than his victims. Maigret contrives to let the burglar’s innocent mother and mistress keep the loot he’s stolen because the burglar is clearly more decent than the nasty people from whom he stole.

* The Patience of Maigret (La Patience de Maigret 1965) In this tale Maigret suspects a major theft was the work of a notorious criminal. But the notorious criminal gets murdered. Maigret finds himself cracking a gang of jewel thieves as he investigates. One surprise – unlike most Maigret novels, this one has a very specific historical setting, as part of its plot turns on a woman who was a refugee as a child in the Second World War. Reading The Patience of Maigret, I thought how convenient it was that so many Parisians live in apartments. So much of what happens simply depends on Maigret, Lucas and Janvier knocking on doors in the apartment block where the murder occurred.

* Maigret Takes the Waters (Maigret a Vichy, 1967) Maigret is on holiday with his wife in Vichy, taking the waters on his doctor’s advice. A lonely middle-aged woman is strangled in her apartment. Maigret assists the local police in their investigation. The investigation is patient and methodical – a series of interviews beginning with the concierge (they usually do in Maigret novels) and moving on from there. The interest lies in establishing the identity and moral character of the deceased woman. Then, as always, Maigret’s main concern is probing the psychology and motives of suspects. What we find, of course, tells us that in some respects the murderer was less guilty, and had less dishonourable motives, than the murdered woman. The novel affirms the defectiveness of human nature, or the reality of Original Sin, if you will. Yes, this is the Simenon universe.

            * Maigret Hesitates (Maigret Hesite, 1968). Maigret receives anonymous letters telling him that a crime will soon happen. Written on rare notepaper, they are easily traced back to the household of a wealthy, unhappy lawyer, who is brilliant at a theoretical branch of the law (maritime law) but is despised as a failure by his sophisticated wife. I won’t tell you what the foretold crime is, or who commits it, or why (my Scout’s Honour prevents me from giving away “spoilers” when discussing mystery or detective novels). Maigret Hesitates is the novel where there are some pungent thoughts on the French criminal code which (at least when the novel was written) excused murder done in a state of dementia, very broadly defined. It is also a novel in which Maigret specifically disavows any interest in politics.

* Maigret and the Madwoman (La Folle de Maigret 1970) An old woman, who complains that she is about to be murdered, is dismissed as mentally unbalanced by Maigret. He later feels remorse when she really is murdered. Maigret and his colleagues investigate and discover that a sleazy relative was trying to get his hands on something valuable that the old woman possessed. As one could say of the Maigret universe – it figures.

            I should add a few general remarks about that Maigret universe. Of course, given the social attitudes that Maigret takes for granted, there is in the novels what feminists might call some casual misogyny (not as extreme as the misogyny in the novels of the lesbian Patricia Highsmith, mind). In Maigret Hesitates, the inoffensive lawyer is basically seen as a martyr to the bitchy, hen-pecking wife. In Maigret Takes the Waters, the murdered woman is morally and intellectually corrupt. If we want to be picky, we could also note that while Maigret’s wife is occasionally identified by her first name (Louise), she is usually called merely Madame Maigret and is very much an adjunct to her husband. But then aren’t the domestic arrangements of detectives in detective novels merely part of the setting?

            Then there is another matter for clever dicks to pick on. Given that Maigret was working as a police officer in Paris from 1931 to 1972, wouldn’t this mean that for at least four years (1940-44) he would have been working for France’s collaborationist regime? Strictly speaking, this is a logical inference. But the Maigret novels are so resolutely apolitical, and stick so much to the world of thieves, murderers, tarts, pimps and snotty bourgeois people who get what they deserve, that it is foolish to attach any political significance to them. It would be like booking Sherlock Holmes for his rampant British imperialist and anti-Irish attitudes in Conan Doyle’s fourth (and feeblest) novel about him, The Valley of Fear.

            Inevitable cinematic and TV footnote: Maigret is second only to Sherlock Holmes as the world’s most famous fictional detective. Only Holmes has been depicted more times in film and television adaptations. Maigret has appeared in French, British, Italian, German and other TV series and movies, and he has been played by numerous actors. Here are the ones I have seen and know.

Charles Laughton was a horribly miscast Maigret in the 1950 film The Man on the Eiffel Tower. He was far too flamboyant and hammy for the role of the quiet police inspector, and he never tried it again. Thank goodness.

            The veteran French actor Jean Gabin was an excellent Maigret in three movies made between 1958 and 1963 – Maigret tend un piege, Maigret et l’Affaire Saint-Fiacre and Maigret Voit Rouge. I have seen two of these and enjoyed the actor’s gruffness and certainty – a legitimate reading of the character. Incidentally, Maigret tend un piege (Maigret Sets a Trap) has the distinction of being the Maigret story most often dramatized, but it is a little atypical of Maigret as it is about the entrapment of a serial killer and not the usual round of interrogations.

The Maigret I grew up with, and saw on television as a child, was Rupert Davies, who appeared from 1960 to 1963 in 52 episodes of the BBC’s series Maigret. Davies, at least as I remember him, had a more friendly and less lived-in face than Jean Gabin. Simenon himself (who could handle English and who lived in the United States for some years) wrote the scripts for some episodes. People of my generation remember Ron Grainer’s theme music and the opening credits sequence, which had Maigret striking a match on a wall to light his pipe. For us, there was the additional interest that the New Zealand (Auckland)–born actor Ewen Solon was cast as Lucas, Maigret’s subordinate, and the series went some distance towards turning Lucas into Maigret’s sidekick (like Watson to Holmes). In the novels, Lucas is simply one of three or four subordinates upon whose services Maigret relies.

I think Gabin and Davies were the best Maigrets I experienced, but Michael Gambon would come an honourable third in the very good British TV series that ran for two years (1992-93). Gambon played the man a little more world-weary than Davies, and certainly older – a man whose wisdom comes from having seen it all before.

But I have to say something about a Maiget I have never seen. For years on French television, and in more televised Maigret stories than any other actor, Jean Richard played the detective. (Later an actor called Bruno Cremer became the reigning Maigret on French TV). I don’t know how good Jean Richard was, but I do know that he suffered one major disability. Georges Simenon hated his performances and publicly said so. In fact Simenon went out of his way to say that Rupert Davies was his ideal Maigret (the BBC series had been dubbed into French and was shown on French TV). Poor Jean Richard. It would be interesting to see his shows and learn if Simenon’s criticisms were justified.

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