Before you ask, flic is colloquial French for a police officer. Commissaire Jules Maigret is probably the best-known French fictional detective, created by the novelist Georges Simenon (who was actually Belgian). When we first moved here and my French was lousy, I cut my teeth on the Maigret novels, which are not that difficult. Recently, we’ve been watching DVDs of a long-running series of Maigret stories starring Bruno Cremer in the title role.
The series was first shown in 1991 and ran until 2005, over some 54 episodes. Having read the novels, Bruno Cremer was, for me, the incarnation of Maigret. Others have said they preferred Jean Gabin or Jean Richard in the role, but Cremer had the tall, heavy build needed, and I think he made the role his own.
What’s the lasting appeal of the Maigret stories, most of which were set between the late 1940s and the 1960s? Part of it must be the nostalgic pull of France during that period, which, of course, is terribly easy to over-romanticise. A large part must also be the character of Maigret himself.
Maigret and his methods
Born in the French countryside, he originally plans to become a doctor and begins his medical training, but changes in family circumstances mean he is forced to take up an occupation, so he chooses the police. He rises up through the ranks, ending as Commissaire in the Police Judiciaire at 36 quai des Orfèvres in Paris, specialising in murders and serial crimes such as jewellery heists. Sometimes he is called in to investigate crimes in the French provinces.
He has a successful conviction record, but is always frustrated when people ask him what his “methods” are, since he claims he doesn’t have any. That’s not quite true: he immerses himself in the social milieu surrounding a crime and has a profound understanding of human motivation. He says he is a “raccommodeur de destins” (a fixer of destinies). Behind the pipe and the ponderous physique operates a quick and intuitive brain.
Occasionally, Maigret allows natural justice to take its course and he lets off someone who should strictly have been convicted, since it is only he who possesses all the evidence. His understanding of human frailty leads him to be compassionate towards those who have been led into crime against their inclinations.
Maigret generally has a difficult relationship with the juges d’instruction, who are in charge of police investigations. His particular bête noire is le juge Coméliau, who thinks some of Maigret’s methods are questionable and feels the commissaire doesn’t keep him sufficiently informed.
Food and drink
Maigret is fond of his tucker and his drink. This was the period when the two-hour lunch break was still going strong in France. Most days, provided he isn’t called away, he goes home to the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, where Madame Maigret has spent most of the morning preparing a delicious lunch. In one book, when he suffers from a hangover, he tells his wife that he wants only “du jambon blanc, de la salade verte et des pommes de terre à l’huile.” This is his idea of a very light lunch.
At other times, en pleine enquête, his main hang-out is the fictitious Brasserie Dauphine around the corner from the Palais de Justice, or he orders in sandwiches from the brasserie.
Bars play a large part in the Maigret stories. This is partly because they make good places to stake out the villains. But it’s also because, in the absence of mobile phones, if you wanted to phone in to the Police Judiciaire, you had to get a jeton (token) from the barman and use the public phone in the bar.
Dated but evocative
Of course, the stories are dated now. People use colloquial jargon that is no longer current. DNA testing and other scientific developments don’t yet exist, although Moers, who runs the police laboratories, does pretty well with the tools at his disposal. Even the villains seem a bit cosy and predictable, sometimes. But this is before the rise of international terrorism and internet crime. And Simenon effectively evokes the ambiance of post-war Paris.
I keep coming back to the Maigret novels, partly because they are rattling good stories, but also partly because I learn so much each time I read them.
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