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By John Helmer, Moscow 

In a few days’ time,  it will the 91st  anniversary of the first appearance in print of Jules Maigret, who began his first case as a detective chief inspector of the Paris Flying Squad, and was later promoted to  Commissaire de Police Judiciaire; in his day that was the senior detective supervising crime investigations throughout the city.

It will also be the anniversary of my reading the 75th and very last of the Maigret books by Georges Simenon.  Between the first, published on May 26, 1930, and the last, published in 1972, forty-two years elapsed; they included World War II; the Korean War; two Vietnam Wars; the Algerian war; three Israel-Arab wars;   three India-Pakistan wars; and the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Simenon ignored every one; Maigret never read, thought, or said a word about them.

If Maigret was politically partisan, it was only slightly in favour of the FBI; slightly against Scotland Yard; the Belgian, Dutch, German, and Italian police he treated as ciphers.  He dealt with only one Russian character, to whom Simenon gave the first name Vladimir but omitted the second. He had been a cadet in the imperial Russian Navy; during the civil war he was on the losing White side, and ended up a nondescript in French exile.

Everybody in the Maigret stories is a nondescript to varying degrees, especially Maigret himself. As a magazine for London intellectuals once reported, Maigret was “one of literature’s most exceptional characters. Or, rather, one of literature’s most unexceptional characters: the most exceptional unexceptional.”  

In our time when Anglo-American  journalists calculate that, if they aren’t employed by the state  one way or another, the only way to make money is to churn out reports about the wrongdoing of other journalists, while exhibiting themselves with personal fetishes on which readers can be persuaded to click – in company like this,  Maigret’s character stands out  for one thing: when he isn’t investigating the truth of the case, he doesn’t exist. He shaves every day but never describes his appearance in the mirror; he smokes a pipe but never notices the taste or aroma of the tobacco; he orders sandwiches to his desk but never identifies the fillings; he sleeps in his marital bed but never has sex; the street outside his window has more character than he does; the weather, too.  On Maigret in short —  though he was large man —  there is nothing to click. The character has also made a huge amount of money – far more than substackers like Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald want you to think their Russiagate investigation stories currently earn them.

Quite unlike them too, when Maigret narrates investigating his cases to their conclusion, he never stints on giving credit to his fellow police detectives, pathologists, and forensic experts; even ( much less often),  a journalist or (very rarely) his wife. Criminal investigation in Maigret’s method and style is always a collective enterprise.

This feature has inspired some left-leaning intellectuals to detect in the Maigret books a fellow-traveling mind behind the plot. For one English left-leaner,  Maigret himself appears   “as a man of the people, of the soil.”   To another English left-leaner,  “what’s at work here is class resentment. That is a powerful force in the books, and so is class hypocrisy. In categorising Simenon’s plots, two main strands stand out: posh people who’ve done bad things and have guilty secrets; and identity puzzles in which people are hiding who they really are, and in particular who they used to be. Both these plot strands turn on questions of class. It is a sociological worldview, and Simenon is a sociological writer, perhaps more so than any other detective novelist.”

This fellow hasn’t read the works of the Americans — Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Dashiell Hammett.  Simenon had; Maigret hadn’t.

Left to right: Raymond Chandler; Kenneth Millar (aka Ross Macdonald); Dashiell Hammett; Georges Simenon.

An American left-leaner who’s more knowledgeable about American detective novels has observed:
“What drove him? In part a kind of lifelong argument with the middle and upper classes, whom he’d worked so hard to join and surpass. A keen sense of social strata and their signifiers is essential to the best crime novels, and Simenon, with his upbringing and tumultuous ascendancy, carrying his mother’s obsessions on his back, was perfectly suited to exploit this world of manners.”

This is an observation about Simenon; it’s not about Maigret. It’s probably a lesson for money-making at crime investigations that John Le Carré approached but wasn’t quite able to match.  Le Carré, like his MI5 and MI6 masters, firmly believed in evil as the root of those of his characters he placed on the Russian side. Class wasn’t evil for Le Carré; Russian nationality is.  Simenon didn’t believe in evil at all. It was therefore neither a motive nor a weapon nor a clue to the crime in any of the 75 stories.

So, for this anniversary of Maigret’s, the toast is to investigative reporting of the crime that is evil-free but catches the murderer in the end.  

There may not be enough money in this for another bottle to refill the champagne glasses.

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