The pipe-smoking French police inspector created by Georges Simenon is one of the most popular detectives in literature, as Heidi Fuller-Love explains
Given the friendly rivalry between the two countries, it is perhaps ironic that the detective who has been dubbed ‘the French Sherlock Holmes’ was created by a Belgian. Author Georges Simenon’s own life certainly reads like a novel: he was born in Liège on Friday 13 February 1903, but a superstitious aunt registered his birth date on the 12th. At the age of 15, Simenon took a job on the local newspaper, where his work reporting on crime gave him a lasting attraction for the seamier side of life, which features so often in his work.
When his much-loved father died in 1922 at the age of 44, Simenon moved to Paris. From 1924-1929 the author known for his prolific output wrote 150 pulp novels. “It’s true my father had an amazing capacity for work and could write a book in a fortnight,” his son John said in a recent interview.
Simenon wrote the first Maigret novel in 1931. The Strange Case of Peter the Lett, about an international fraudster and a case of mistaken identity, was written while Simenon was boating in the Dutch town of Delfzijl. Maigret is said to have been inspired by real-life Commissaire Guillaume, who was in charge of many celebrated criminal investigations at the time “I imagined a large, powerfully built gentleman I thought would make a passable inspector. As the day wore on I added other features; a pipe, a bowler hat, a thick overcoat with a velvet collar, and, as it was cold and damp, I put a cast-iron stove in his office,” Simenon commented later.
Jules Maigret came into being aged 45, the birthday Simenon’s father had failed to reach. Known as le patron, he was capable of cat-napping just about anywhere, loved his pipe and showed a true French love of food, with favourite dishes including his wife’s home-made pintadeau en croute (guineafowl pie).
Between 1931 and 1972, Simenon penned 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. According to a popular joke in Le Canard Enchaîné newspaper: “M Simenon makes his living by killing someone every month and then discovering the murderer.”
Of the 75 Maigret novels, 63 are set in Paris. Whether it is the dead man found in the Canal Saint-Martin in The Headless Body; Maigret’s office at 32 Quai des Orfèvres; the smell of ragout in a seedy café or the sound of wine glasses clinking on zinc-topped bars, Simenon’s stories evoke the French lifestyle for countless readers worldwide.
With more than 850 million copies sold, Inspector Maigret remains incredibly popular more than 80 years after his creation. Critics suggest that the books have enduring appeal because Simenon’s characters are profoundly human. “So completely does he put himself into the skin of others when he writes, that he speaks, eats, even walks differently,” Simenon’s first wife Régine Renchon once said.
In Maigret in Society, Simenon writes, “He did not take himself for a superman, did not consider himself infallible… Patiently, he strove to understand, aware that the most apparent motives are not always the deepest ones.”
Despite this humble approach to life, Simenon’s fictional detective rapidly gained cult status: he has been portrayed on postage stamps, been the subject of walking tours and had his culinary foibles investigated by famous chefs. Yet the author never imagined that his creation would be so successful. In an interview at the author’s castle in Lausanne, recorded by writer Frederick Sands, Simenon admitted: “Each time I start a novel, Maigret or not-Maigret, I am almost sick with fear.”
In a recent newspaper interview, Rowan Atkinson, who plays the pipe-smoking detective in ITV’s occasional series, said of the detective: “He doesn’t have any oddities about him. He’s quite a plain man with a relatively simple life. He doesn’t have a French accent or a lisp or a limp or a terrible home life or a sordid past. He is a very ordinary guy doing an extraordinary job.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Simenon was one of the 20th century’s most prolific writers and he could write 60-80 pages in a day. Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock once rang and was told that Simenon was busy writing a novel. “Let him finish, I’ll hang on,” the film-maker quipped.
Simenon’s love life was as prolific as his writing, and he claimed to have slept with more than 10,000 women, including the-then 19-year-old jazz era star Josephine Baker.
Photographer Joe Richards has created a detailed, illustrated itinerary for a self-guided tour of the detective’s Paris, from the Gare du Nord – described in Maigret’s Memories as “the coldest, draughtiest and busiest of Paris’s stations”– to Place des Vosges, where Maigret once lived. trussel.com/maig/steps2.htm
Although he left Liège as a young man, Simenon admitted that he often drew literary inspiration from his memories of the French-speaking city’s landscapes, characters and atmosphere. This excellent walking tour allows you to follow in the footsteps of one its most famous native sons. visitezliege.be/en/visite/footsteps-simenon
With so many Maigret novels, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are two suggestions:
Maigret au Picratt’s: When a striptease artist is murdered, Inspector Maigret investigates. Best for? A fascinating rollercoaster ride through the demi-monde of Parisian night clubs in the 1950s.
Mon Ami Maigret: A murder takes Maigret to the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles, accompanied by a Scotland Yard detective who wants to study his technique. Best for? Learning more about Maigret’s motivations – and his methods.