Except perhaps among the stuffy and the effete, there seems no longer any question about the importance of Georges Simenon. Distinguished men of letters, discerning critics, an international reading public, and his own enormous body of work have established Simenon as a major modern novelist. The fact that he has virtually created his own genre the 'simenon' and worked powerfully within it is one measure of his unique achievement. Yet for all his individuality, the range of his talents has generated critical comparisons with a pantheon of writers past and present. His depiction of the seamy and the sordid suggests Dickens and Graham Greene. Although he acknowledges the influence of Gogol, his characters seem closer to those of Dostoyevski. His stylistic precision and economy and his reluctance to play the metaphysician remind one of Hemingway; many critics, however, discover in his works a world view resembling that of Sartre and Camus. The breadth and abundance of his work naturally recall Balzac. And so on. In fact, most of the writers Simenon resembles, no matter how disparate they seem, share a common denominator: they are largely artists of the violent, the cruel, and the criminal. Like Simenon himself, they are practitioners of the thriller, a popular literary form capable of high development.
Whatever the scope and significance of his action, Simenon remains primarily a writer of thrillers. The violent nature of human emotion provides his constant subject. He has himself admitted his preoccupation with human beings driven to their limits, which seems to mean in his novels, men and women compelled by passion and circumstance to damage others and themselves. His work deals not with love, fidelity, and virtue, but with lust, betrayal, and vice. His customary milieu is squalid, his people desperate, and his attitude detached, ironic, and mercilessly objective. Because he does indeed resemble Dickens, Dostoyevski, Greene, and Camus, he finds the criminal of one sort or another an appropriate and even representative man for his age. All men, as Simenon's novels show, may be criminals.
The thrillers that have most firmly established Simenon's reputation are his detective stories, the 65 or 70 (depending on whose count one uses) adventures of Inspector Jules Maigret. The Maigret novels occupy a curious position in their author's canon. He has deprecated them as inferior to his other work, and ardent Simenonists occasionally seem embarrassed by them. They are, after all, only detective stories, a necessarily minor kind of fiction, written for the reader's relaxation and entertainment. But one of Simenon's most important achievements is his superior handling of the tired materials of this supposedly second-rate genre. He has contributed significantly to the form, and his detective stories demand as much respect as any of his works. No consideration of the author can disregard the 'Maigrets'.
Of course, Simenon applies his own peculiar talents to the detective novel, transforming it from a conventionalized and predictable form into something closely resembling a 'simenon'. He rejects the intricate problem, the ingenious deductions, and above all, the eccentric, brilliant sleuth of traditional detective fiction. He replaces these elements with his typical setting, atmosphere, characters, and events, all presented in the terse, spare, deceptively simple Simenon style. The Maigret novels lie much closer to the other simenons than to most detective fiction. The vitally important difference between Simenon's detective stories and his other novels is the presence of Inspector Maigret, through whose consciousness everything in the novel is filtered.
As famous in his way as Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Maigret lacks virtually every distinguishing mark of the Sherlockian Great Detective. He displays no conspicuous physical or intellectual gifts, speaks no memorable epigrammatic phrases, cherishes no striking personal eccentricities. He is neither a quirky bachelor nor a dazzling original. He is, in fact, a very ordinary man, almost distressingly dull and domestic. Happily married to a devoted and motherly woman, he enjoys no vices beyond pipesmoking and a perhaps larger than ordinary consumption of beer, wine, and spirits. Perhaps most important, he follows no distinctive method (as he constantly points out), preferring instead to absorb all the knowledge he can, then brood over it until he comes up with the solution to a case.
His cases bear little resemblance to most fictional crime. In Simenon there are no bizarre murders with infernal machines, no diabolically clever criminals using advanced scientific methods. Instead, people, driven by the depressingly limited range of human emotions fear, jealousy, hate, lust simply kill other people. The murderers and their victims betray the terrifying sameness of crime. They may come from a variety of social classes and situations the decadent aristocrats of Maigret et les témoins recalcitrants, the solid Dutch citizens of Un Crime en Holland or the Belgian shopkeepers of Chez les Flamands, as well as the tawdry denizens of Montmartre (Maigret au 'Picratts') but they are united in their capacity for sin. Crime in Simenon has a way of becoming endemic, spreading like a stain until every character is implicated, defiled somehow by events. Like almost all the other Simenon characters, the people in a Maigret novel are invariably stamped with the pathos and defeat the author finds fundamental to the human condition.
Unlike the usual detective, Inspector Maigret does not always make things right. No infallible dispenser of justice, he seldom finds it easy to absolve the innocent and punish the guilty. To begin with, for him it is no simple task to assign guilt. A whole family may be implicated in a crime, as in The Flemish Shop or Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses. The murderer may seem less guilty than the apparently innocent as in Les Scrupules de Maigret, where the intended victim turns out to be more vicious than her would-be killers. In Maigret se Trompe, the brilliant physician whom Maigret suspects happens to be innocent of any crime except that of total inhumanity; though Maigret is shocked by Gouin's character, he cannot arrest the man for cruelty and heartlessness. In Maigret en Meublé he even regrets his discovery of guilt to do his job he must violate his own compassion for an invalid and her devoted lover, who happens also to be a murderer.
As his creator claims, the presence of Inspector Maigret does in part limit the novels. We cannot see fully into the souls of the characters; we can know only what the detective knows. But this does not relegate the Maigret books to an inferior position in the Simenon canon. As we see, Inspector Maigret observes the actions of people who normally inhabit the other Simenon novels. He is also the man commissioned to apprehend them when they violate the law, when their passions drive them beyond the boundaries of normal human values. The Maigret novel begins, so to speak, where the Simenon ends. In the one, terrible forces culminate in an act of violence; in the other, a man studies the completed act of violence in an attempt to recover the passions that caused it. Perhaps, then, the investigations of Inspector Maigret represent a kind of sequel to a simenon. The structure, characters, and events of The Flemish Shop and Chez Krull (the first a Maigret, the second a Simenon), resemble each other so closely, as John Raymond points out in his recently published Simenon in Court, that the complementary relationship of the two kinds of novels seems obvious.
Because of his unique position in Simenon's works and because of the relationships between the Maigret novels and the other simenons, Maigret serves another important function. He provides a form of judgment not necessarily merciful or just on the human capacity for wrongdoing that Simenon's fictional world continually implies. Maigret can be seen as a projection of the author's conscience, a control exerted upon whatever extremes evolve out of a richly creative imagination. Maigret's judgments supply a norm which Simenon's other fiction usually lacks. Since the other books never otherwise pass judgment, the Maigret novels may be the logical place to turn in order to discover what the author thinks of the characters and the world he has created.
Inspector Maigret's most important function, however, transcends his role as arbiter and suggests a paradoxical connection with the traditional sleuth of detective fiction, whom he otherwise never resembles. He is, like most fictional detectives, an imaginative projection of the artist himself. The conventional detective hero is in part a figure of wish fulfilment, the dream self of a precocious child. Living in cosy and protected bachelor solitude, tinkering with unusual hobbies, and exploring arcane interests, he enjoys the freedom to do and say exactly what he wishes. Above and beyond the law, the detective solves impossible crimes, frequently only for the purpose of demonstrating his own intellectual superiority. Protected from sexual passion, the detective enjoys the childish oral indulgences of smoking, drinking, eating, and boasting. Such figures as Poe's Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Nero Wolfe all seem to embody their creators' juvenile fantasies.
As we know, Inspector Maigret represents no such obvious and primitive wish fulfilment. He lacks most of the requisite traits, particularly the smug intellectual invulnerability, that cloak the Great Detective. Maigret never gloats over his successes because they are so seldom real victories. His famous 'method' defines his peculiar virtues as a detective and separates him sharply from the traditional sleuth. His method differs utterly from the fusion of keen observation, wide knowledge, and rigorous reasoning by which fictional sleuths solve crime. A professional with all the techniques of a formidable investigative machinery at his disposal, Maigret prefers to play a lone hand. Despite the reports, autopsies, dossiers, and other data he receives, facts bore him. Neither a methodical sifter of evidence nor a careful logician, Maigret relies on a sure knowledge of human character and an intuitive sympathy. He unites these abilities in his technique of absorption, soaking up all details and impressions, no matter how irrelevant, in order to pursue his investigations. He tries to sense the 'feel' of a particular case, 'sniffing up' the 'private lives of other people' (Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses). But if Maigret is a sponge, he is also a chameleon: he not only absorbs and assimilates, he is himself absorbed and assimilated, employing his very commonplaceness to enter fully into the case at hand.
Maigret succeeds in his investigations precisely because he lacks those distinctive qualities of the Great Detective. Because his personality is in no way remarkable, he can blend almost unnoticeably into his surroundings. Decidedly not an original, devoid of strikingly unusual mannerisms, Maigret, as his name implies, has only the barest outline, a meagre sketch, of a personality. No aspect of his own character, therefore, intrudes between him and his work. Thus even in unfamiliar territory, ignorant of the language as in The Flemish Shop or of the customs as in Mon Ami Maigret, he accomplishes his object as well as in the familiar ground of Paris (Maigret in Montmartre). One of the books that best demonstrates his special abilities is Maigret Takes a Room, where the Inspector rents a room in a boarding house to find a murderer. He is wholly assimilated into the neighbourhood, becoming, in effect, a character in his own case. The end of the investigation brings its usual spiritual fatigue and sadness, caused by the wrench Maigret must undergo when he returns to his old character of policeman.
This method, as he always claims, is no method at all, and of course he is correct; or rather, it is no method for a detective, professional or amateur, real or fictional. But Maigret is not really a detective and he is more than a kind of moral censor for the author. He is, in fact, the artist himself. The Maigret novels provide, not an exercise in entertaining crime fiction, but a continuing portrait of the artist as detective and the detective as artist. Since Simenon himself seems obsessed with the creative act, it should come as no surprise that he chooses a typically Simenonesque genre to dramatize the process of creation. Because he also employs the detective as a surrogate for himself, Simenon demonstrates one major point of comparison with the writers of traditional detective fiction, who project their fantasies on the character of the detective.
Most detective heroes, after all, may serve as artist figures. The detective, like the artist, is essentially an observer. Unlike most detectives, however, Maigret is not fascinated so much by particular facts or events as by the truth that lies behind them. He is not so much concerned with 'whodunit' as with the motives, the passions, the pressures, which drive men to commit murder. For him the investigation is its own goal, the capture of the criminal only an anticlimax. He must, like the artist, find his greatest satisfaction in the creative endeavour, in the dissolution of his personality in the lives of others. The end of a case means he must return to himself, relinquishing his art for the details of life, always a rather depressing diminuendo. Like all detectives and all artists, Maigret must be a reconstructionist. He enters a situation only after its central action has already occurred. Presented with the sparse details of unfamiliar lives, he goes about the business of deciding what is relevant and what not, which fact leads to which truth, and who among a group of diverse personalities has been driven to commit destruction. He penetrates a tangle of actions and emotions to establish order, to find causality, pattern, and meaning.
His investigation therefore properly ignores most of the apparently important points and concentrates instead on what may seem a host of irrelevancies a character's preferences in food and drink, his habits, his sexual life, the way he conducts his business, his past, and so forth. Whatever the need for official and artistic objectivity, Maigret cannot help being drawn into the lives he examines. The details he discovers brings a special sense of life to the people he meets. And he realizes that 'from understanding people he derived not merely a feeling of pity, but also a kind of affection' (Maigret's Mistake). Seldom unmoved by his discoveries, he frequently acknowledges that his job demands a certain payment in the currency of the spirit. In Maigret Takes a Room, his compassion for the long and hopeless love between an invalid and a criminal instructs him once again in the sacrifice and sadness his profession demands. Hating himself, he must arrest the man. His task, as Simenon has described the profession of writing, is a 'vocation of unhappiness'.
Like the artist, then, Inspector Maigret does not so much create as recreate, shaping out of the materials of human disaster a pattern of meaning and truth. His ultimate function, as he realizes in La Première Enquête de Maigret, differs markedly from that of most detectives.
To tell the truth, the profession he had always wanted to practice did not exist . . . he used to imagine a very intelligent man, above all a very understanding man, doctor and priest at once, as it were, a man who would at first glance understand the destinies of others ....Maigret here seems to echo closely the constant credo of his creator, who sees the artist as a being capable of living the lives of other men, who like Maigret must get inside the skins of other human beings. Apparently, too, Simenon sees the effects of his actions as ennobling. In order to create the artist must enter into other human lives; his creation, then, shows the product of that assimilative technique. The whole process subsequently instructs the reader, enabling him to repair his destiny and seek a better life. The detective-artist can counsel men, arrange their lives, mend their destinies. Teacher, doctor, priest, the detective-artist should be a wise and compassionate being, shaping goodness and redemption out of evil, misfortune, and sorrow.
Although Maigret may not resemble his fictional cousins in many ways, his role as a type of the artist allies him with the sleuths of the past. All fictional detectives seem to embody something of the artist. Gifted beings who live in splendid isolation, they are distinguished from other men by their talents and achievements. Their strange habits and idiosyncrasies are tolerated as emblems of their abilities. They apply their gifts of observation, memory, and intelligence to reconstruct truth out of fact. They can even punish the guilty and absolve the innocent. Thus, even beyond the obvious wish fulfilment, the detective can represent the fantasies of his creator; the fantasy may sometimes seem immature and silly, but it has enchanted generations. Anyone who can give satisfaction by sharing his dream with others deserves a measure of respect and admiration, whatever the nature of that dream. Of course, Simenon steadfastly refuses to glamorize the hero who embodies his own fantasies. Like everyone else in Simenon, Maigret simply exists. As a detective and as an artist, he possesses no spectacular qualities. His success results from his ordinariness, which suggests the absolute humility of his creator, who approaches his subjects with the honesty and purity of a writer fully committed to his vision. Maigret and Simenon share a great gift: each can subordinate himself entirely in order to discover the essence of others. Like Keats, Simenon demonstrates the necessity of dissolving the self to apprehend the truth and beauty of the object.
The Maigret novels, then, deserve an important place in the Simenon canon. They are admirably drawn dramas of murder, typically Simenonesque treatments of crime, which seems to be a constant and revelatory human action. They help to prove Raymond Chandler's statement that 'the tensions in a novel of murder are the simplest and yet most complete pattern of the tensions on which we live in this generation'. They also suggest the possibilities of legal and moral judgment, of normal human conscience, which seldom appear elsewhere in Simenon. The Maigret books suggest, too, that their author may be a great deal more of a metaphysician and a moralist than his works would otherwise imply. Finally, the books provide more clearly than anywhere else (with the possible exception of Le Petit Saint) the artist's picture of himself, the sketchy personage who constantly submits himself to the violence and chaos of life in order to instruct his readers and himself in the directions that human destiny can follow. To readers of detective stories, to Simenonists, to students of literature, the 'maigrets' serve a variety of compelling functions, all of which combine in their identity as a powerful parable of the creative process. They show the artist coming to grips with life, with art, with himself, and they instruct us thereby in the dignity and humility of a powerful imagination.