Maigret: France’s Favourite Flic

selection of our maigret books

A small selection of our Maigret books

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.

Lasting appeal

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.

bruno cremer as maigret

Bruno Cremer as Maigret

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.

Paris - Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame on the Ile de la Cité, not far from Maigret’s stamping ground

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.

Paris - Musée d'Orsay

Musée d’Orsay: a station in Maigret’s day, but probably not very different, except for the traffic.

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.

You might also like:

The Top Ten Maigret Novels
French Country Novels
French Novels: 10 of the Best – Nos 6-10

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About nessafrance

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.
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14 Responses to Maigret: France’s Favourite Flic

  1. fatdormouse says:

    I liked Rowan Atkinson in the role – I hate his Mr Bean antics, but enjoyed Blackadder very much. He is a good actor and brings a gravitas to the role. I’ve not seen any other Maigrets though, so this is my only experience!
    What about other crime programmes – have you seen the scandi-noir The Bridge? We absolutely loved that, and binge watched it on the i-player!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I haven’t yet seen Rowan Atkinson as Maigret, although people say he is good. I didn’t care for Mr Bean, although I understand the French like it.

      Oh yes, we’re great fans of Nordic Noir: The Bridge, The Killing, the Wallander stories. All good for cold winter’s evenings. My husband is Swedish, so they have a particular resonance for him, even if he did leave Sweden more than 40 years ago.

      Like

  2. Kerrie Roberts says:

    I enjoy two very different french police characters – Bruno Courreges in the novels of Martin Walker which are set in that part of France where I live, and Commissaire Adamsberg in the Fred Vargas books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Oh yes; I think I’ve read all the Bruno books, except for the very latest one. Martin Walker came to our literary festival down here a few years ago and was very entertaining. I don’t know the Fred Vargas books and must look them up. Thanks for the tip.

      Like

      • Paul Diamond says:

        I also great enjoy Martin’s books, have the whole set (so far). Read in the summer that he had signed with BBC and Canal to make a tv series of them, which would be great, hope they film on location though. Our village is only 5km from Le Bugue (aka St. Denis) where he lives and Bruno is set. I watch 2 eps of the Atkinson Maigret series last night, very good.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        I’m not surprised to hear that the Bruno books may be televised. They lend themselves to it. He has hit on a winner there.

        Like

  3. Lee Isbell says:

    I found 8 of the 10 Maigret books on your list, in French, at Book Depository, free worldwide shipping. My experience (in the US) is that I receive their books very quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      That’s great. I hope you enjoy them. Those 10 are just my personal favourites, but I’ve enjoyed all the Maigret books I’ve read. Book Depository are efficient, so I hope they arrive soon.

      Like

  4. Paul Diamond says:

    Dare I ask what you think of Rowan Atkinson’s portrayal of Maigret?

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Actually, I haven’t seen it, so I can’t offer an opinion. If I’m honest,he’s not the first actor who would have come to mind for the role. But I have heard some people say he was good in the role. Have you seen him as Maigret?

      Like

      • Paul Diamond says:

        Admittedly I have only seen 3 or 4 of the older Maigret episode, so dont have a lot to judge Atkinson’s more recent performance by. That said I did enjoy it as I am a sucker for that ‘film nor’ late ’40’s detective genre whether its in classic Hollywood or Paris. Your article has encouraged me to look up more of the Maigret eps though.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        I do love this detective genre based in a period more than 50 years ago. There is an older, French Maigret series, with Jean Richard in the title role. I must see if I can get hold of some episodes of that.

        Like

  5. I’ve only ever seen Rupert Davies as Maigret and he had the burly build and contemplative mien – I expect the pipe had something to do with that. but I loved the stories and like you have a box set. Thank you for reminding me. I must look them out again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I also remember Rupert Davies as Maigret. I think we are showing our age here. Ahem. Michael Gambon also played him in a UK version, but I recall that he wasn’t morose enough, IMHO.

      Someone who shall remain nameless, but it wasn’t me, bought the boxed set with Dutch subtitles. We don’t have a problem with the French, but sometimes it’s indistinct, so the English subtitles can be helpful. Tant pis: we manage.

      Like

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