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Magazine Littéraire
December, 1975 — N° 107
pp 30-32




The key to the heart


Francis Lacassin

original French

Commissioner Maigret's badge, given to Simenon by the Prefecture of Police.

Maigret doesn't try to judge, but to understand. Like an incubus, he is nourished by the substance of those around him, and it is only in that way that he can see clearly – the secret of his "method."


"Maigret's eyes met those of the boy. It was only for a second. But it was enough for them to understand that they were friends." (The Saint-Fiacre Affair.)

While the choirboy was being treated like a gallows bird by his mother, for having taken the Countess Saint-Fiacre's missal, Maigret remembered that at his age, he too would have liked to possess a beautiful golden missal, with the large red letters at the beginning of every verse. And this memory put on the commissioner's face an expression of sweetness and complicity that didn't escape the child – behind the policeman he found a friend. A situation fully revealing of Maigret's personality – his knack of understanding the other, up to assuming his very behavior, and communicating silently with him, beyond language, gestures and words. What Simenon identifies as instinct, and what Bergson would call the faculty of sympathy, explains the success of this unique policeman, and dominates what he refuses to call his 'method'. He prefers the word 'approach' – even in terminology he dismisses the rigidity of the rule in favor of human contact. Not that he can disdain the technical arsenal that the forensic scientist puts at the disposal of the modern policeman, useful in the investigations of professional criminals, who you arrest with neither hesitation nor remorse, and who Maigret would like for his only adversary. In his Memoirs he lends to Simenon these words that he could say himself:

"Professionals don't interest me. Their psychology doesn't pose any problem – they are people doing their jobs, nothing more."
"Then what interests you?"
"The others. Those who are made like you and me and who wind up, one fine day, by killing without expecting to."
"There aren't so many of those ... outside of crimes of passion."
"Those don't interest me either."

He is not really sincere when he sighs, "With the good people there are always problems." With these unforeseeable and accidental criminals, fingerprints and cigarette ashes don't mean anything. And sometimes even the material evidence is not sufficient to sway Maigret's convictions:

"As a civil servant of the police I am obliged to draw the logical conclusions from the material evidence."
"And as a man?"
"I wait for the moral proof." (A Man's Head.)

For this it is necessary to look into the surroundings of the dead man, into his material environment, his past, not into an ashtray: "To the extent that I don't have an exact idea of who he was these last years, I won't have any chance of getting my hands on his murderer." (Maigret and the Man on the Bench.) This knowledge of the victim can only be acquired by impregnating himself with his atmosphere. And for Maigret to visit places without the least connection with those of the crime. Louis Thouret, stockman in a factory of accessories for carnivals and fairs, has been found murdered in a dead end alley off the Grand Boulevards. And the Commissioner, under pretext of announcing his death to the family, goes in person to his home, at 27 rue des Peupliers in Juvisy. He finds a modest dwelling acquired by dint of deprivation, a distrustful and possessive wife, an impatient and frustrated daughter, scornful brothers-in-law – a stuffy family. He pushes his curiosity – or scruples – to the point of attending the funeral of the stockman that he had never met, but who soon seems to him an old familiar. And he acts like someone close to him: "He did what had to be done, soaked a sprig of boxtree in the blessed water, crossed himself, moved his lips for a moment, and crossed himself again." (Maigret and the Man on the Bench.)

Simenon and some interpreters of Maigret inaugurating the inspector's statue at Delfzijl in Holland.

The commissioner's wandering curiosity eventually starts paying off. Going to visit the factory of cotillion accessories, he discovers that it has been closed for three years, whereas Louis Thouret had claimed to be heading off to work there every morning. Interrogating a workman, the accountant and the old typist, he learns that whenever they saw the stockman, he was wearing his "goose-dung" shoes, whereas he left home shod always in black. "To Maigret's eyes it was a sign – first, a sign of emancipation, he would have sworn, because during all the time he had the famous shoes on his feet, he had to consider himself a free man."

Here also, the faculty of sympathy is operating. "Were these light brown shoes something that kindled Maigret's interest in the fellow? He wouldn't admit it, even to himself, but he too, long ago, had dreamed of owning a pair of goose-dung shoes..." (Maigret and the Man on the Bench.)

No preconceived method – it was necessary to smell the odor of the apartment of the victim and the suspect, to know him better while randomly opening drawers, while doing the inventory of the refrigerator, while studying the old photographs, looking at those that hung on walls or rested on pieces of furniture.

It was the total absence of photographs in the Cloaguen's apartment that had put the Commissioner on the track. (Maigret and the Fortune Teller.) In the Vichy apartment where the woman in rose had been strangled, it was on the contrary the profusion of photos that represented only the victim. In each, she wore a self-satisfied look, except only one, in which there was a certain tenderness. Maigret was sure that if he knew who had taken that photo, he would have hold of the assassin. (Maigret in Vichy.)

With his concern to identify with the victim, or those close to him, Maigret is, in every investigation, in the position of an actor condemned to constantly compose new roles from a thin canvas. "A policeman," he confides to his wife, "ought to live in every social sphere, to know casinos, for example, international banking, Lebanese Maronites and Moslems, foreign bistros in the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germaine, as well as young Columbians. Not to mention the Dutch language or beauty contests." (Maigret and the Nahour Case.) An exhausting task, but one the Commissioner would not dispense with for anything on earth – "You can assign an inspector to a precise task, but how can you order him to go over there, to sniff like a dog searching through trash cans, and to unearth, no matter how, the gold, or rather the secret..." (Maigret and the Fortune Teller.)

In Paris itself he has more and more difficulty diving into the atmosphere of the guilty or the victim. "In principle a Commissioner of the P.J. doesn't take to the streets and bistros in search of a murderer. He is an important gentleman who spends most his time in his office, directing, like a general in his headquarters, a small army of sergeants, inspectors and technicians.

"Maigret had never been able to resolve it. Like a dog on the hunt he needed to nose about in person, to scrape, to sniff odors" (My Friend Maigret.) This persistence annoys examining magistrates, who find these methods slow and antiquated, of no value. One day, one of them will oust him brutally from an investigation to confer it on one of his subordinates. And it is with the complicity of this detective that Maigret will pursue the case clandestinely, and will discover, according to his usual approach, the killer of Honoré Cuendet, the solitary burglar. By getting into his skin, by eating in the same small restaurant as he did, living in the hotel room that he had occupied on the eve of his death, and which served not only as his shelter, but his observatory. (Maigret and the Lazy Burglar.)

If he were to confine himself within his dignity as Divisional Commissioner, then the investigation would bog down or go astray. And if he were tempted to take it in hand... he sighs, like Sherlock Holmes, against the herd of buffaloes that trampled over the land.

We're also surprised to see the Commissioner troubling to interrogate witnesses on the scene, instead of having them brought to the Quai des Orfèvres. In that way, he puts them back in their own rooms, in the psychological puzzle that the victim had scrambled, approaches them in their own atmosphere, saving himself from the shyness, the distrust, the very hostility caused by an official cross-examination. To talk with Mlle Berthe, the half-sister of Mascouvin, the dishonest man of scruples, he invites her to lunch in a restaurant, insists on visiting her small apartment and taking her back by cab to the tourism agency where she works. But he is careful to have the car stop at the corner so as not to compromise her. (Maigret and the Fortune Teller.)

When he comes to interrogate the wife of Steuvels, the bookbinder, he seems much more a "heavy gentleman trying to understand" than a policeman coming to inspect the basement where someone had reportedly burned a body. (Mme Maigret's Friend.) To each of these unofficial cross-examinations he always presents himself hat in hand, attentive to the opportunity of an agreeable gesture. He strokes a cat in the hall. Who will know that he gave cool water to the canary left in the room of M. Louis after his murder? Ousted from the investigation of the murder of Cuendet, the solitary burglar, Maigret will let Cuendet's girlfriend keep the takings that he paid for with his life. Maigret didn't want to disappoint Cuendet's old mother who, learning of her son's death, exclaimed: "He is a good son, he won't leave me without resources." After having arrested him several times the commissioner had developed sympathy for this self-educated thief who only operated in occupied apartments, carrying away with their jewelry a little of the intimacy of the owners. And he didn't like the way Cuendet had been cut down by the wealthy family that he had burglarized, who wanted to avoid a scandal – "Cuendet's death had made him depressed and angry. He was personally angry at his murderers, as if the Vaudois had been a friend, a comrade, in any case an old relation." And he was angry at them for having disfigured him, and tossing him like a dead animal beside a path in the Bois de Boulogne, onto the frozen ground where his body must have bounced. (Maigret and the Lazy Burglar.)

Along with such wealthy bourgeoisie a certain category of petits bourgeoisie is excluded from his sympathy. He prefers to reserve it for the guilty, who furthermore often return it to him. So Meurant, the taciturn picture framer, incarcerated for murder, writes Maigret from his cell to ask him to watch over his wife. (Maigret in Court.) In contrast it was Maigret himself who wrote to Marcellin Pacaud, thief and pimp, to tell him that he had gotten his wife off the streets and admitted to a sanatorium. This Pacaud will vow eternal gratitude to the commissioner, that he will pay for with his life, after bragging casually of being Maigret's friend. (My Friend Maigret.)

Thieves, pimps, prostitutes, swindlers... Maigret considers them victims of a society that didn't give them a chance at the beginning and didn't help them to adjust afterwards. Indulgence and understanding rather, as he sometimes even extends to killers. If certain guilty are in fact victims, there are victims who are in fact the guilty. Telling Mme Maigret of the arrest of the killer of the woman in rose in Vichy, he says simply, "I hope that he will be acquitted."

As if he wanted to persuade her that he believes in the justice! Nothing is more painful nor more discouraging to him than to testify in court. Everything seems false to him from the beginning of the hearing – "human beings find themselves suddenly summarized, so to speak, in a few words, in a few sentences." He himself feels impotent of giving the reality anything more than a "schematic reflection," incapable of making them "feel the weight of things, their density, their quivering, their odor." Scholars pass a whole life studying a character from the past on which there already exists much documentation – a police commissioner has only a few weeks to encompass the personality of a man hitherto unknown. To the judge and jury there is no more – and Maigret hates this – than a few hours to decide a man's life or death. A man whom they have just discovered through the pages of a file. How could they understand him?

Besides, as Malraux said, "To judge is obviously not to understand. Because if one understood, one could no longer judge."

Francis Lacassin

translated by Stephen Trussel
September, 2003

Invitation to the "Anthropometric Ball" given by Simenon for the launching by Fayard of the "Maigret" series in February 1931.

"Georges Simenon, Paul Colin, Don,
have the honor to invite you
to the Anthropometric Ball,
which will take place at the Boule Blanche,
32 rue Vavin, Friday, February 20, at midnight.
Evening wear is not required."

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