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May 22, 1998


The "Third Degree" and Police Interrogations
in the Novels of Georges Simenon

by Gilles Renaud, Prov. J.
Ontario Court of Justice (Provincial Division)



In a recent article, Evidence of Demeanour: Some Instruction Found in the Early Works of Georges Simenon1, I reviewed passages from a number of Simenon's early novels in an attempt to criticize certain assumptions or beliefs respecting the evaluation of credibility. In this article, I will once again call in aid the world of fiction penned by this prolific Belgian author. On this occasion, however, the object is not to question dubious beliefs about the assessment of demeanour. Attention is drawn instead to the issue of "third degree" interrogations, that is to say, lengthy periods of detention, with and without interrogation, prior to the making of confessions. I will seek to attain my objective by means of a review of memorable but fictional examples of abuse of detainees, as I am of the belief that this less conventional study of the subject may serve as a useful complement to the many recent serious studies. It should also provide a better understanding of the type of excess that we must all be vigilant to denounce.2 In the final analysis, it may not be possible to cite this study in a factum, but it will be of assistance in drawing a good reading list for the summer holidays.


a) Police interrogations: the inherent components

Little authority is required to support the proposition that many successful prosecutions have been based on a confession. How detainees come to admit guilt is a fascinating issue which must include consideration of the question whether intimidation or other coercive aspects, the so-called "third degree," played a role in the decision to waive the right to silence. The first component of the discussion must involve the fundamental inequality that marks the relationship between individuals and the representatives of the State. In this respect, there is a wonderfully evocative phrase in Tropic Moon: "And no sooner had he landed [in a new country] that he was hauled up before a police official and treated like a suspect!"3 In Belle, one reads: "Why the devil were [the police] acting this way? It made him feel almost ashamed. Ashamed above all of being impressed by it and of replying as if he were a criminal."4 The second component of the relationship between the police and the citizen is not dependent on individual frailties or susceptibilities but upon the potential exercise of raw power. As made plain in Maigret Has Doubts, by our favourite pipe-smoking detective, "... I had no right to let slip a chance of getting a confession, if he had anything to confess."5 Consider also Maigret's War of Nerves 6: "Is that you, Lucas? Look here, old man. Run around to the office of Sifflet, on Rue Montmartre. Get the editor by himself. Put the screws on. A little intimidation. We've got to know who gave him that information about the escape from Santé".

No doubt that this state of affairs must make it easier for the police to gain admissions. One suspects that a great number of individuals share Dave Galloway's reluctance to protest in The Clockmaker, springing as it does from an instinctive respect for everything that represents authority in organized society.7

b) The "third degree": An examination

If it is correct to suggest that any encounter between the police and an individual member of our community may be marked by an inherent and fundamental imbalance of power and by the individual's normal desire to be co-operative with those who "serve and protect," what of the addition of certain pressure tactics on behalf of the authorities? Surely any such coercive feature must result in depriving the detainee of any free will, as will be seen. In this sense, the "third degree" refers to any technique that is designed or which results in overcoming a detainee's resistance to police questioning. Two of these techniques are of particular interest and will be discussed presently: 1) lengthy detention without questioning and 2) lengthy detention while being questioned.

Both of these techniques seek to overcome the detainee's resistance and ultimately, to obtain the result described in Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine8. The story ends with the murderer stating, "I'll confess anything he likes, so long as they send me off to my little corner as speedily as possible." (See page 189.) Note as well that Simenon instructs us at page 36 of Maigret Mystified9 that "His weariness was surely that of a guilty man who no longer feels strong enough to keep quiet, who prefers imprisonment to the agony of suspense." It is thus in the best interests of the police to prolong the suspect's sense of tension, to augment the need to unburden oneself that may be at play in such circumstances.

This is not to suggest that detainees do not readily confess on occasion. An example of such a case is found in The Clockmaker:10 "Is this where you give us the third degree... If you want confessions, I confess everything, the murder of the old boy on the highway, the theft of the car, the threats to the farmer and his wife, and the shots fired at the police. I'm not accused of anything else, am I?" Of note, he later provided further admissions making it plain that his crimes were premeditated.11

Simemon provides a useful illustration of this form of coercion or threat in Maigret et 1'Inspecteur Malgracieux.12 After his arrest, an international fraud artist is informed by Inspector Maigret that the police have no interest in conducting a "chansonnette" that day, that is to say the lengthy interrogation of a suspect by a number of officers who are to harass the subject to the point of exhaustion. To the contrary, the suspect is simply to be held in custody with no opportunity to move about until such time as he provides a confession. Indeed, he is told indirectly that in order to earn his supper he will have to "sing", i.e., to admit to his various crimes. In another book, At the 'Gai-Moulin',13 we are informed that the police stage a little comedy to induce the murderer to disclose his hand. He does so, left as he is in the dark, for as many hours as are required.

Note also that in Maigret's Pickpocket,14 we are informed that when the police do not know what to do with a witness, but still want him kept on a string until he or she cooperates, they put him in the icebox; that is to say, he is locked away until some further step is taken. That the detention may be accompanied by violent acts on the part of the police, or threats of such, is not unheard of in Simenon's fiction. For example, in Inspector Maigret and the Strangled Stripper,15 one reads how Maigret confronted a witness in this fashion:

Listen! I don't have a great deal of patience today... Either you talk now or else I'm going to tuck you away out of the sun for a good long time. And that won't be before I've let my detectives clear things up with you.

You mean they would hit me?

They'll do what they want to do.

They don't have the right.

Needless to say, he went on to answer a great number of questions. One further example is found in Maigret and the Calame Report,16 Maigret instructs his subordinates thus: "Don't take your eyes off Fleury. Don't let him call anybody. If he asks questions —you know nothing. I want him to stew in his own juice for a while."

This is not to suggest that the period without questioning need be quite lengthy. In Maigret and the Burglar's Wife17 we are offered the example of a witness being made to wait for some 10 minutes while seated in Maigret's office. The person is studiously ignored and we are informed that "It was seldom that anyone in Serre's position could stand it for long without asking questions, losing his nerve..."

In the final analysis, Simenon's writing points out certain obvious concerns, notably that: 1) a person should not be detained for any period of time merely to induce co-operation, or fear, which is the same thing; 2) a person who has not yet appeared before a judicial officer should only be kept in custody at a police facility for reasons that are transparent and appropriate and 3) a detainee should never be threatened, intimidated or harassed. In few words, any such treatment invites a Court to conclude that any admission resulted from the "third degree".

ii) Lengthy detention with questioning:

Simenon provides many examples of lengthy questioning of suspects, although he does make plain that that the "third degree" is not to be resorted to in the case of members of certain favoured classes as noted in Maigret and the Burglar's Wife.18 Possibly the best known example of a lengthy interrogation is that described in Maigret's Memoirs,19 in which the famous detective comments how the final interrogation of the suspect lasted twenty-eight hours and involved not four police officers but six working in shifts, "going over the same questions one by one in every conceivable fashion, gaining a little bit of ground each time." A slightly less remarkable example is found in Maigret at the Crossroads.20

When, with a sigh of relief, Maigret pushed his chair back from the desk at which he had been sitting, the interrogation of Carl Andersen had lasted exactly seventeen hours.

The interrogation went on and on. Every hour, or every two hours, depending how tired he was, Maigret would press a button. Sergeant Lucas, who was dozing in a near-by office, would come in, glance at the chief-inspector's notes, and take over.

And Maigret would go and lie down on a camp-bed, returning to the attack with new stocks of energy. ... Seventeen hours of unrelenting interrogation.

Lest there be any doubt about the nature of the interrogation in such cases, note that Simenon selected the word "grilling" in the original French-language text to denote what had occurred.21 At all events, it is difficult to know what is Maigret's record in this context. In Maigret and the Apparition,22 reference is made at page 130 to questioning of suspects "for several days." In Maigret and the Burglar's Wife,23 Maigret refers to an interrogation that required almost 28 hours prior to breaking the suspect's nerves. In Maigret and the Spinster,24 the commissaire orders an inspector to "Take him to the [police station] ... I'll leave the job of grilling him to you... Keep at it till he talks... understood?... Take it in relays, if necessary. I want a full confession."

Finally, I point out that in Inspector Maigret and the Strangled Stripper25 Maigret instructs an officer who is described as big and powerful with hands like a butcher's boy to "Lock yourself up with that guy there and don't let him go until he's brought up everything he knows. It doesn't matter whether it takes twenty-four hours or three days. It you get tired, have yourself relieved."26

On occasion, the police are confronted by a vulnerable individual who is particularly susceptible to the pressures inherent in arrest and detention, without regard to any undue detention whether or not accompanied by elements of the "third degree". Consider the illustration provided in Maigret and the Yellow Dog27: "She turned her head away without answering, unexpectedly embarrassed, and the Superintendent felt that if he pressed her, even a little, she would burst into tears." He did not question her. In such instances, any detention beyond what is strictly necessary may well result in vitiating any supposed voluntariness. On the other hand, there are witnesses who are far from being unable to defend themselves. For example, in Maigret in Society,28 this bit of dialogue appears:

You didn't manage to get anything out of...?

I started asking her the most innocent questions imaginable, in the hope of winning her confidence. All that happened was that she said in a sarcastic voice: 'Young man, you can't teach your grandmother to suck eggs, if your chief thought I was going to tell you some secrets...'

In light of the foregoing review, the earlier noted conclusions are to be drawn in such cases, à plus forte raison, with the added observation that an unduly lengthy interrogation must surely be designed to break the detainee's resistance, a finding that may not only result in the rejection of any admission but which may well result in a stay of proceedings. As was observed in Maigret and the Toy Village,29 "At times, [Maigret] had cunningly manipulated an interrogation — which might last for twenty hours or more — to induce in his suspect, or one could almost say his patient, just such a condition of physical and moral collapse." Any comparable true-to-life incident would no doubt result in extremely grave consequences for those involved.


In this article, I have sought to portray just two of the many aspects of "merciless examinations"30 that Maigret and other characters created by Simenon have made countless suspects undergo and endure. A great number of other themes might have been explored but the foregoing discussion should suffice to remind us all that our standards of justice in this respect are exacting. Only in the world of fiction may we accept the notion that "In police work, surely everything was permissible in the interests of bringing the criminal to justice."31

  1. (1998), 21(4) Prov. Judges J. 5-23.
  2. See Ashworth, "Should the Police be Allowed to Use Deceptive Practices?", (1998), 114 L.Q.R. 108-140; McConville, "Videotaping Interrogations: Police Behaviour on and off Campera", [1992] Crim.L.R. 532; Williamson, "Reflections on Current Police Practice" in S. Moston and G. Stephenson (eds.) Suspicion and Silence (1994); Skolnick and Leo, "The Ethics of Deceptive Interrogation", (1992), 11 Crim. Justice Ethics 3; Grevling, "Fairness and the Exclusion of Evidence", (1997) 113 L.Q.R. 666.
  3. See Tropic Moon in In Two Solitudes, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1952, at p. 175. The same type of docility if not inability to question authority even after being detained without any reasons being advamced is noted in The Window Over the Way, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1966, at p. 29.
  4. In Simenon An American Omnibus, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., N.Y., 1967, at p. 14. Translation by Louise Varese.
  5. See p. 24 of The Third Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1971, translated by Lyn Moir.
  6. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Orlando, 1986, at page 20. Translated by G. Sainsbury. [Emphasis supplied]
  7. Harvest Books, Orlando, 1967, at p. 92.
  8. Harvest Book: Harcourt Brace & Company, N.Y., 1989. Translated by G. Sainsbury.
  9. Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1987. Translated by Jean Stewart.
  10. Supra, note 7, at page 93.
  11. See p. 109.
  12. The passage quoted above is found in Tout Simenon 2, Presses de la Cité, Paris, 1988, at pages 27-33.
  13. Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1951, [translated by G. Sainsbury], at pp. 284-285
  14. The text is found in Maigret and the Mad Killers, Nelson Doubleday, Inc, Garden City, N.Y., 1980, at p. 145.
  15. Signet Book, N.Y., 1964, translated by Cornelia Schaeffer, at pp. 11-12.
  16. Curtis Books, N.Y., 1954. Translated by Moura Budberg. Refer to p. 187. The same image, albeit expressed differently, is seen in Maigret and the Toy Village Hamish Hamilton Ltd., London, 1978, at p. 17. An inspector, in speaking of a number of witnesses who have been made to wait, states: "I deliberately left them stew...". Translation by Eileen Ellenbogen.
  17. Harcourt/HBJ Book, Orlando, 1991, at p. 37. Translated by J. Maclaren-Ross.
  18. Supra, note 17, at page 37. On the other hand, there are occasions when Maigret is reluctant to interrogate a potential witness/suspect on humanitarian grounds. For example, at p. 100 of Maigret in Vichy, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1984, translated by Eileen Ellenbogen, he considers that it would be unseemly to question someone in light of recent tragic events.
  19. Penguin Rooks, Middlesex, 1966, translated by Jean Stewart. Refer to p. 26.
  20. Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1972, translated by Robert Baldick. See p. 23.
  21. See p. 471 of La nuit du carrefour, Tout Simenon 16, Presses de la Cité, Paris, 1991. In French, the term "chansonnette" is commonly selected to describe this technique.
  22. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, N.Y., 1976, [translated by E. Ellenbogen].
  23. Supra, note 17, at p. 163.
  24. Harvest Book, Orlando, 1982, at p. 61. Translated by E. Ellenbogen.
  25. Supra, note 15, at p. 86.
  26. I digress to note that at p. 181 of Tropic Moon, supra, note 3, we learn that the police prefer to begin grilling newcomers first as they are easier to break.
  27. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Orlando, 1987, at p 18. Translated by Linda Asher.
  28. In Georges Simenon, Heinemann/Octopus, 1978, at p. 747.
  29. Supra, note 16, at p. 62.
  30. To quote the Chief Inspector in Maigret in Society, supra, at note 28, p. 770.
  31. See Maigret and the Toy Village, supra, note 16, at p. 76.

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