‘What on earth has Georges Simenon’s Maigret got to do with living in southwest France?’ you might ask. And you’d be absolutely right. Very little, is the answer, at least on the face of it.
However, I’ve often said that if you want to live in France you need to learn the language. Going to French classes is a good start, as is talking to French people. To get a good grasp of French you also need to read newspapers, watch French TV and read books in French. This is where Maigret comes in. The stories are good and the character of Maigret is brilliantly drawn, but the language is not complicated or difficult. That makes these novels an excellent choice if you are at intermediate level in French.
My two previous posts on French novels (click here and here) are among the most popular I’ve written. In the second one, I said all the Maigret novels are good and I wouldn’t single any out. I have changed my mind because of the number of people who come to this site having entered ‘top 10 Maigret novels’ into a search engine. This post is for them.
Who is Maigret, anyway? Commissaire Jules Maigret is the principal character in a phenomenally successful series of detective novels by Georges Simenon. Set mainly between the late 1940s and the 1960s (although a few are set in the earlier period), they are a wonderful depiction of French society at that period.
Maigret normally gets his man (or woman) in the end. He always claims that he doesn’t employ any particular methods, but he immerses himself in the surroundings and social milieu of a crime. He has a profound understanding of human frailty and motivation and describes himself as a ‘raccommodeur de destins’ (a fixer of destinies). He is fond of a glass or three and likes his grub. Food and drink play a large part in the novels.
I have read most of them. Here are my ten favourites (not an easy choice):
1. Mon ami Maigret (My friend Maigret), 1949: Maigret travels to the island of Porquerolles to investigate a murder, accompanied by a Scotland Yard detective who has come to study Maigret’s methods.
2. Maigret se défend (Maigret defends himself), 1964: Maigret is falsely accused of compromising a young woman (although not actually raping her – apologies, I got this wrong in the first version of this post and have just re-read the book). Realising that someone is out to frame him, he must conduct his own investigation to prove his innocence.
3. Maigret à l’école (Maigret at school), 1953: Maigret goes to a seaside village to investigate the murder of a vitriolic old woman whom everyone in the village loathes. The schoolmaster is accused of the crime but protests his innocence.
4. Maigret et son mort (Maigret and his corpse), 1948: a man who is pursued by a killer goes desperately from bar to bar, phoning Maigret for help, but the killer gets him. Maigret sets up an elaborate trap and unearths a murderous gang in the process.
5. Les vacances de Maigret (Maigret on holiday), 1947: on holiday on the west coast, Mme Maigret falls ill and has to be hospitalised. Maigret then gets drawn into the mystery surrounding the death of a young woman in the same hospital, following an accident.
6. Les scrupules de Maigret (Maigret has scruples), 1957: a man comes to see Maigret, convinced that his wife is trying to kill him. He is poisoned shortly afterwards. Maigret’s investigation reveals a strange three-cornered relationship between the man, his wife and her sister.
7. La patience de Maigret (Maigret’s patience), 1965: a former villain, now in a wheelchair after a settling of scores, is shot dead in his apartment. Maigret has always suspected him of a series of jewellery heists but has never been able to prove it. Maigret keeps the villain’s mistress under surveillance.
8. Maigret au Picratt’s (Maigret at Picratt’s), 1950: a nightclub stripper is murdered and Maigret enters the demi-monde of 1950s Parisian clubland to find her killer.
9. Maigret en meublé (Maigret stays at a boarding house), 1951: one of Maigret’s faithful inspectors, Janvier, is shot and seriously injured while staking out a suspected criminal. Maigret books himself into a nearby boarding house as his HQ and makes the acquaintance of the landlady, Mlle Clément, and her eclectic tenants.
10. Maigret se trompe (Maigret makes a mistake), 1953: a young woman of humble origins is shot in an upmarket apartment. She is the mistress of a celebrated surgeon who lives upstairs with his wife. A rare occasion when Maigret comes across someone who intimidates him.
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