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Maigret, the fame of a Chief Inspector

by Murielle Wenger

original French


The writing of the Maigret saga extends over more than forty years, presenting the Chief Inspector in 75 novels, with his investigations translated into a hundred languages. Such an accomplishment is not without its effect on the notoriety of the character, a fame that spans borders and generations of readers.

Simenon has amused himself by showing us, within the stories themselves, how the Chief Inspector has become a well-known figure. Throughout the saga he alludes to the fact that Maigret is well-known in his world, that he is recognized on the street, and that his name evokes a reaction in many people, and in a variety of environments. In order to consider Maigret's fame in his fictional world, there must, by definition, be a number of novels already published. And so it's only as the saga develops that the novelist can, little by little, put forward the idea that the Chief Inspector has become a character known to many, his celebrity having grown with the success of his investigations.

Maigret's renown is thus both that of a policeman, and as a fictional character. As Jean Fabre writes (Enquête sur un enquêteur, Maigret, Un essai de sociocritique), "Thus an internal legend is created (within the text) which greatly influences the external myth (Maigret seen by his readers)". But we can also reverse the proposition, and say that this "internal" legend is enhanced by the number of novels written – the more novels in the saga, the more the novelist can give authenticity to the fame of his creation.

Let me introduce myself, my name is Maigret

When the novelist first introduced his character onto the literary scene, he had to provide him with a formula allowing him to be situated within a precise framework, as a policeman. So at the beginning of Pietr le Letton [LET], the character makes his appearance with the words, "Chief Inspector Maigret, First Flying Squad". A rank, a context. Maigret appears as a Chief Inspector (and not simply as an inspector, or a plain detective), in the Brigade Mobile, the First Flying Squad, in what was then called the Sûreté. Later in the same novel, when he arrives at the scene of the crime, he merely announces "Police!", while in Le charretier de la Providence [PRO], when he presents himself to Colonel Lampson, he says "Judicial Police!". We know that Simenon, in his first novels, was not very clear about the functions of the various police services, and it was only after his visit, at the invitation of Xavier Guichard, to 36 Quai des Orfèvres, that his indications of Maigret's role became more precise.

In Monsieur Gallet, décédé [GAL], Maigret sometimes presents himself as Chief Inspector in the Flying Squad, and sometimes as Chief Inspector in the Judicial Police, but after Le pendu de Saint-Pholien [PHO], he only uses Police Judiciaire, "Judicial Police". Later, in Les caves du Majestic [MAJ] (the first novel of the saga in which Simenon brings his character back after the series of short stories written for the newspapers), Maigret describes himself as "head of the Special Squad of the Judicial Police", a formula that will be found again, as in Maigret, Lognon et les gangsters [LOG]: "Chief Inspector Maigret, of the Special Squad", or "Chief Inspector Maigret, head of the Criminal Squad" (Maigret et l'affaire Nahour [NAH]).

Look, it's Maigret!

At the beginning of the saga, Maigret is presented by his creator as being known, above all, to those he encounters in the exercise of his profession... on the one hand, by his colleagues and those working in the same sphere, within the milieu of the police, and on the other, by his "usual clients", those of the underworld. But little by little, the Chief Inspector is also recognized by all those he meets in the course of an investigation, particularly the barmen, bistro owners, and hotel staff, but also newsmen and taxi drivers.

In Félicie est là [FEL], we find Maigret in the Rue Pigalle, an area he knows well, but also one where he is well known... "the doormen of the nightclubs soon recognized him as he passed by"... Similarly in Maigret se trompe [TRO], when the Chief Inspector goes into a dance hall on the Boulevard de la Chapelle... "The Chief Inspector had hardly entered when two men rushed out, bumped into him, and headed off into the depths of the district. Others, at the bar, turned their heads away at he passed, hoping not to be recognized, and as soon as his back was turned, they fled as well."

In Le chien jaune [JAU], it's Servières, who ran a cabaret de Montmartre, la Vache Rousse, who says to the Chief Inspector, "I've often heard talk about you...", which might be considered the first allusion in the saga to Maigret's fame.

In Liberty Bar [LIB], it's Inspector Boutigues who welcomes him to Antibes... "Chief Inspector Maigret, I believe? I recognized you from your photo in the papers". This the first evocation of Maigret's "media celebrity", which will often recur in the saga.

Maigret is known and of course recognized by the magistrates of the judiciary. In spite of their sometimes difficult relationships with the Chief Inspector, they still acknowledge, even if with a certain reluctance, his abilities as a policeman and the deservedness of his reputation. Still, in the later novels of the saga, when the novelist shows us his hero advancing in age, it's accompanied by more difficult relationships with the younger members of the judiciary, showing Maigret that his reputation may be beginning to fade. A well-known example is that of Judge Angelot in Maigret et les témoins récalcitrants [TEM]. The novel opens with Maigret on the platform of a bus, which "was filled with young people, some of whom recognized him, and others who paid him no attention at all". A premonition? Several hours later, when the Chief Inspector arrives at the scene of the crime and meets the examining magistrate, the judge "was content to shake Maigret's hand... but without uttering any of the phrases to which the Chief Inspector was accustomed.... It was hard to believe that Angelot had never heard of him. But he'd shown neither satisfaction nor curiosity. Was it... a way for him to show Maigret that his renown didn't impress him? Or a true lack of interest, the indifference of the new generation?"

You're very popular, Chief Inspector

As we advance through the saga, Maigret's fame extends beyond his usual sphere, and he becomes a celebrity, someone everyone may have heard of. Simenon plays on both the Chief Inspector's reputation for his particular methodology, and at the same time on his popularity outside of the fictional world.

In the first novels, Maigret is above all identified as a policeman, no doubt from his behavior. Consider, in Pietr le Letton [LET], the taxi driver who picks up the Chief Inspector when he's been shot... "He didn't know who he was. Did he guess somehow that he was a policeman?" In L'écluse no 1 [ECL], at the time of the first meeting between the Chief Inspector and Gassin, Gassin had "sniffed out the policeman in Maigret". In Les caves du Majestic [MAJ], it's with a certain irony that Simenon presents the scene between Miss Darroman and Maigret... "She said that... she knew quite well that you were from the police... It was enough to see your hat on your head and your pipe in your mouth."

Then, little by little, by his popularity, Maigret attracts many request for assistance, almost irrespective of his status as a policeman. As Stanley Eskin writes in his biography of Simenon, "Maigret becomes famous in his own fictional universe, and that's why so many drifting souls want to talk with him.... Maigret's fame is the proof that people are receptive to the sympathy that emanates from him". Being known as "someone who can understand", his assistance is sought in unraveling mysteries. For example, a former schoolmate who appeals to the Chief Inspector to establish the innocence of an accused ("I've learned that you've become an important person in the Police Judiciaire", he writes in Au rendez-vous des Terre-neuvas [REN]), or it's Cécile Pardon who comes to Maigret for help... "She had immediately asked for Chief Inspector Maigret. It's true that she'd had occasion to read his name in the papers." (Cécile est morte [CEC]). And Mascouvin arrives at the PJ "insisting on speaking with Chief Inspector Maigret in person" (Signé Picpus [SIG]). It's Joseph Gastin who comes in search of his aid to prove his innocence of murder... "Maigret impressed him. It was clear that he'd long known his reputation, and that, like many, he saw him as a kind of 'God-the-Father' figure" (Maigret à l'école [ECO]). It's Léontine de Caramé who wants to speak with the Chief Inspector because "he's the only one who can understand" (La folle de Maigret [FOL]).

The famous Chief Inspector Maigret

The renown of the Chief Inspector soon spread to other spheres, outside of his regular "clientele". This is especially the case in the later novels of the saga, once Maigret's celebrity had been furthered by the continuation of his investigations in the Presses de la Cité editions. A countess in the Rue des Pyramides: "If you only knew how excited I am to receive such a celebrated man in my own home..." (Signé Picpus [SIG]); a fish merchant in Sables-d'Olonne: "That, my dear, is the famous Chief Inspector Maigret... Somewhere I've still got a magazine from three weeks ago with a fine picture of him in it..." (Les vacances de Maigret [VAC]); a young hotel maid in Porquerolles: "Maigret impressed her, because he was famous" (Mon ami Maigret [AMI]); another hotel maid in Paris: "she said with a kind of dreaminess, 'Is it true that you're really the famous Chief Inspector Maigret?" (Maigret, Lognon et les gangsters [LOG]); a retired railwayman: "I have all the articles about you, Monsieur Maigret." (Maigret a peur [PEU]); a school teacher: "Maigret visibly intimidated him, not so much because he was with the police as because he was famous." (Maigret à l'école [ECO]); a nurse in a bar: "'Is that really you, the Chief Inspector Maigret?' 'Yes.' 'I thought so. I've often seen your picture in the papers." (Maigret et le corps sans tête [COR]); a telephone information worker, who "was excited about the idea of collaborating with the famous Chief Inspector Maigret" (Maigret et le corps sans tête [COR]); a cabaret hostess: "I think I've seen your face somewhere. At first I thought maybe in the movies, but it was in the papers." (Maigret et les témoins récalcitrants [TEM]); a collector of paintings: "I'm flattered, believe me, to meet a man as famous as you..." (Maigret et le fantôme [FAN]); an American journalist: "And your name is Maigret?... The Maigret of the Quai des Orfèvres?" (La patience de Maigret Maigret et le fantôme [PAT]); a resident of an apartment in Grenelle, who "regarded Maigret with a smile that would have inspired a movie star" (Le voleur de Maigret [VOL]); a bird seller on the Quai de la Mégisserie "quite proud to have recognized Maigret" (La folle de Maigret [FOL]); a young boy in the Halles district, who "pasted into a notebook all the photos [of Maigret] published in the newspapers" (Maigret et l'homme tout seul [SEU]).

And Maigret's reputation transcends borders... a criminologist from Philadelphia comes to study his methods(Cécile est morte [CEC]); the policemen of Scotland Yard "knew Maigret by reputation and were interested in his methods" (Mon ami Maigret [AMI]); "the head of the Sûreté of Lausanne who said he was delighted to finally have the opportunity to meet the famous Maigret" (Maigret voyage [VOY]); and another American criminologist: "there were always the same phrases, the same questions, the same exaggerated and embarrassing admiration. Maigret... hated being treated as a phenomenon" (Les scrupules de Maigret [SCR]).

Maigret? Who's that?!

There are some, however – though not that many - who remain unmoved by the Chief Inspector's reputation, like Jeanne Debul in Un revolver de Maigret [REV]: he presents himself, "Chief Inspector Maigret, of the Judicial Police", to which she retorts, "And that gives you the right to come into someone's room?" There's a particular category of people on whom Maigret's reputation seems to have no effect, and that is hospital nurses, particularly, middle-aged ones... Thus, in Maigret et son mort [MOR], a nurse "of middle age, who was insensitive to the reputation of Maigret"; in Maigret et le clochard [CLO], the Chief Inspector must first announce himself to "a rude woman behind a reception window.... 'What did you say your name was?'' 'Chief Inspector Maigret'… That meant nothing to this woman", then it was the turn of the head nurse: "she turned toward Maigret. 'It's you who's come for the clochard?'' 'Chief Inspector Maigret...' he repeated. She searched her memory. The name still meant nothing to her." In Maigret et le fantôme [FAN], when Maigret visits the hospitalized Lognon, another head nurse: "Pardon me, madame. I'm the head of the Crime Squad of the Judicial Police... The woman's cold glance seemed to say, "So?".

We note, however, that if the nurses seem to show disdain for Maigret's reputation, that is not the case with Dr Pardon's medical colleagues, whom he often invited to his dinners at the same time as the Chief Inspector: "It was they who asked to meet him... They'd all heard of him and were curious to make his acquaintance." (Maigret tend un piège [TEN])

The Chief Inspector's Badge

Maigret, in addition to stating his name, profession and rank to identify himself, may need, before certain skeptics, to furnish proof. And that's when he shows his Chief Inspector's badge. The first time in the saga that he has to use it is in Le pendu de Saint-Pholien [PHO]: after Jeunet's suicide. When the Brême policeman arrives on the scene, he has everyone leave the room, "except Maigret, who showed his badge as Chief Inspector of the Judicial Police of Paris". Next it's in La danseuse du Gai-Moulin [GAI] that he shows it to Chief Inspector Delvigne, who's still unconvinced of Maigret's identity (recall that in this novel, Simenon amuses himself by delaying the identification of the Chief Inspector until the end of Chapter 6, merely describing him as "the broad-shouldered man"). In Maigret et l'homme du banc [BAN], in response to Madame Thouret's mistrust: "It was just by chance that Maigret had his badge in his pocket. More often he left it at home". Is the Chief Inspector really so confident that he'll be recognized as a policeman?! In Maigret et la jeune morte [JEU], at Madame Crêmieux's: "Maigret showed her his badge, which she examined carefully. 'It's you, Chief Inspector Maigret?" In Maigret et le corps sans tête [COR], when he goes to see Lucette Calas at the hospital, a place where's he's not automatically recognized (see above): "He gave his name, and showed his badge, as he felt that here his prestige was weak." In Un échec de Maigret [ECH], it's about convincing Martine Gilloux: "'You're sure you're from the police?'' ... He showed his badge. 'Chief Inspector Maigret', he said. 'I've seen your name in the newspapers. Is it really you? I'd have thought you'd be fatter.''"

It's disconcerting not being Maigret...

And it may also happen – though rarely enough – that Maigret isn't recognized, either as a policeman, or, more seriously, personally! And so in L'affaire Saint-Fiacre [FIA], the novel of the distressing resurgence of his childhood memories, his feeling of being unable to handle the investigation is amplified by the fact that no one there recognizes him... Not Marie Tatin, nor the doctor, both of whom had known him as a child, nor even the steward, for whom the Chief Inspector's name seems to evoke nothing, even though he'd actually succeeded Maigret's father. It was as if his reputation had not reached the place of his origins. A rude blow to his self-esteem. In L'inspecteur Cadavre [CAD], it's in his role as policeman that Maigret has difficulty presenting himself, from the time of his arrival at Saint-Aubin, when Naud apologizes for not recognizing him right away, despite the fact that his photograph "appeared so often in the newspapers". Later, when the Chief Inspector wanders in the village in search of someone who can give him information, his feeling of being a "foreigner" only grows, and provides the opportunity for the novelist to have him reflect on his fame, and a certain fragility or relativity of it: "The most disconcerting thing was to no longer be Maigret. For, in short, what did he represent in Saint-Aubin? Nothing. He was conscious of not being the Maigret to which he was accustomed. It was perhaps an exaggeration to say that he didn't feel like he was in his own skin, but it was something like that... and as for his name, who knew whether there was one person in the village who knew it. It's easy, being Maigret! Everything works smoothly... Just casually mention your name and the people, dazzled, fall all over themselves to be agreeable. But here he was so little known... in spite of the articles and photographs which frequently appeared in the papers..."

Maigret I am, Maigret I remain...

From the last novel of the Fayard period (Maigret [MAI]) a new theme appeared: Maigret's popularity as a retired Chief Inspector. What remained of his notoriety, once the Chief Inspector was in retirement? In Maigret [MAI] (recall that Simenon wrote this novel to respond to the request of a newspaper, and that he had promised at that time that it would be the last of the series), Audiat, when he sees Maigret for the first time, asks "Who's that, that guy there?" He suspected he was someone special, but he had not yet recognized the old cop, nor that he was the famous Chief Inspector... In contrast, in the other novels and stories where Simenon presents Maigret in retirement, it's the ex-Chief Inspector's reputation that causes numerous help-seekers to come rushing to the door of his house at Meung-sur-Loire... In Le notaire de Châteauneuf [not], M. Motte arrives to ask him to investigate the disappearance of objects in his collection: "I've heard a lot about you..."; in Maigret se fâche [FAC], Bernadette Amorelle comes to ask his aid because she knows the policeman's worth: "I know your reputation and I know that you're smart enough to find out for yourself". Likewise, in Maigret à New York [NEW], Jean Maura comes to solicit him: "I know most of your cases"; Maigret's renown has even crossed the ocean, since, in the same novel, an American journalist evokes "the famous Chief Inspector of the PJ", while John Maura and Mac Gill know of him as well, and Lieutenant Lewis says he's delighted to meet him.

What good is it, being Maigret?

To a degree, this fame of his hero may have caused Simenon some annoyance, in that he sometimes presents rather ironic descriptions (or are they perhaps, by a play of mirrors, references to what the novelist himself has experienced), as in Les vacances de Maigret [VAC]: "Maigret was accustomed, when he went somewhere and was recognized, to see people examine him curiously, because of his reputation. Some thought it necessary to ask him more or less stupid or flattering questions. 'In short, Chief Inspector, what is your method?'' The cleverest or most pretentious might declare, "In my opinion, you're rather Bergsonian... Some were satisfied to see how a Chief Inspector of the PJ was made... Others were very proud to shake the hand of a man whose picture appeared periodically in the papers..." As for Maigret, himself, he sometimes, while not complaining, found his fame somewhat cumbersome. At any rate that's was he says in his Mémoires [MEM], even as he recognizes that "it's not unpleasant. Not just because of the satisfaction of self-esteem. Often for practical reasons. Look! Just to get a good place on a train or in a crowded restaurant, not having to stand on line." And Maigret sometimes goes further about this celebrity for which he doesn't feel responsible, to point out that he "had never sought it. Just the opposite. How many times had his investigations been complicated by the fact that he was recognized everywhere? Was it his fault that the journalists had created a legend around him?" (Maigret se défend [DEF]). Yes, while we may accept that he did not ask for this legend, we can all the same ask if the fact of being recognized had not sometimes simplified his task, by opening doors to environments that he might not otherwise have had access to...

translation: S. Trussel
Honolulu, August 13, 2017

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