Maigret as a bleu

La première enquête de Maigret by Georges Simenon (1903-1989) The title means : Maigret’s first investigation.

I’ve only read Le chien jaune by Simenon. I have a vague memory of a novel in a foggy city in Britanny and of sitting in a classroom, head resting on my hand, waiting for the bell to ring with patient resignation. After reading reviews of Simenon’s books by fellow bloggers, I decided to try another one. True, the reviews I read weren’t about the Maigret series, but still I wanted to try one again, in an attempt to wipe away the ennui I endured when I first read him.

Now the book.

We’re in 1913, in Paris, pre-WWI and the city is still full of fiacres. Jules Maigret is the secretary of the commissaire in the Saint-Georges police station. In the night from 15th to 16th April 1913, a musician, Justin Minard arrives at the police station and declares that he heard a shooting in an hotel particulier rue Chaptal. The mansion belongs to the powerful Gendreau family and Maigret’s boss, well introduced in the Parisian high society, doesn’t want an investigation. Feeling Maigret isn’t ready to give up, he sends him on an unofficial one, hoping he will fail. We follow him during his investigation.

I can’t say I was enthralled by the plot but I’m convinced I should read more of Simenon. Here is the opening paragraph of the book:

Une balustrade noire partageait la pièce en deux. Du côté réservé au public, il n’y avait qu’un banc sans dossier, peint en noir lui aussi, contre le mur blanchi à la chaux et couvert d’affiches administratives. De l’autre côté, il y avait des pupitres, des encriers, des casiers remplis de registres énormes, noirs encore, de sorte que tout était noir et blanc. Il y avait surtout, debout sur une plaque de tôle, un poêle en fonte comme on n’en voit plus aujourd’hui que dans les gares des petites villes, avec son tuyau qui montait d’abord vers le plafond, puis se coudait, traversant tout l’espace avant d’aller se perdre dans le mur. A black balustrade split the room in two. On the side reserved to the public, there was only one bench without a back. It was black too and set against the whitewashed wall covered with administrative posters. On the other side of the balustrade, there were desks, inkwells, lockers full of huge books, also black. Everything was black and white. There was also, standing on a metal sheet, a cast iron stove that can only be still seen in railroad stations of small towns. Its pipe climbed to the ceiling, then bent and crossed the whole room before getting lost in the wall.My translation, please be lenient, it’s not easy to translate.

A few sentences and you’re propelled in this commissariat. You can imagine the place, smell the dust, feel the atmosphere, the people going in and out bringing into the building the ugliness of the world. It reminded me of the first paragraph of Skylark.

This volume is not the first Maigret Simenon wrote though. Contrary to contemporary crime fiction writers who develop their character in later volumes, Simenon imagined his character’s beginnings in the police after his readers have known him as an accomplished commissaire. Is it because he wrote it in Arizona in 1945 that this novel is so tainted with nostalgia? Simenon never knew Paris during La Belle Epoque, he arrived in the City of Lights in 1922. However, this first Maigret brings to life the popular Paris of that time: the cafés, the apaches, the working class, the food, the drinks (Mignard drinks fraisette) and the still new neighbourhood of the future 17th arrondissement.

In French, a bleu is a beginner. It conveys the idea of being freshly out of school, educated but lacking field experience. Maigret is a bleu. His head is full of the principles and methods he learnt in the police academy and he struggles to put them into practice or to pick the useful ones and leave behind the inapplicable ones. He discovers at his expense that not all the things he needs to know were included in the textbooks.

Simenon confronts Maigret with reality. In his head, the difference between good and evil is clear. He’s certain that the police is efficient and wouldn’t cover a crime. In his mind, things are black or white, like the commissariat he works in. This first investigation throws him in all kinds of grey shades. He won’t get out intact. Simenon also shows him as ambitious, already eying the Quai d’Orsay as his future office. And Maigret is newlywed and it is kind of funny to meet Mme Maigret before she becomes a dull wife.

La première enquête de Maigret was entertaining and I enjoyed reading Simenon reconstructing his hero’s first steps in his profession and the first months of his married life. It was funny to read about a clumsy Maigret full of illusions about justice and police as you might expect a beginner to be. Someway it broke in my head the automatic equation Maigret = Bruno Kremer, which is good.

  1. August 5, 2012 at 11:57 pm

    I remember reading this one while I was still in college, and I had borrowed it from the university’s library. Back then I had already read several Maigrets but in French. I did not like this one; as you mention the plot is not the smartest, but in particular I did not like the English translation. It did not feel at all like reading Simenon, the images were dull and the “cadence” of the writing was simply non-existent.

    I think you are being harsh on Madame Maigret 🙂 I never imagined her to be dull; on the contrary I think she reflects quite the character, especially when Maigret finds himself dragged to fulfill some social visit because of her insistence.

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    • August 6, 2012 at 10:18 pm

      What’s the English title? I didn’t find it.
      You know, this was first published as a feuilleton in Point de vue, images du monde. Its readership probably doesn’t need complicated or dark plots.
      I have this image of Mme Maigret: very housewife and without a life of her own.

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      • August 10, 2012 at 8:48 am

        Maigret’s First Case. Sorry for the late reply… I had no idea that it was serialized… For some reason I do not imagine those compact Maigret books to lend themselves to serialization…

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  2. August 6, 2012 at 1:27 am

    As you know I am a fan of Simenon, but have only read some of the non-maigret novels. Good question about the nostalgia perhaps being caused by the novel being written while Simenon lived in America.

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    • August 6, 2012 at 10:20 pm

      Don’t read this one: you’d waste your time. I’ll try one of the romans durs one of these days.

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      • August 8, 2012 at 7:57 pm

        I’ll read all of the romans durs and then one of these days I’ll be desperate for Maigret

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        • August 9, 2012 at 2:00 pm

          Lucky you, he wrote lots of books, so you have a lot to read before getting desperate enough to read Maigret.

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  3. August 6, 2012 at 7:16 am

    the first thing I was thinking when I started reading your review was “And what about homey Mme Maigret”. She is one of the worst characters in the later books, the whole marriage situation makes my face fall asleep while reading…. Glad she was alive once.
    This sound very good and I’m sure, from what you write, he mixed a lot of the elemenst he uses in the stand-alones in.
    While I’ve read a few later Maigrets which were not that good, I still enjoyed the writing. I think he’ so evocative.

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    • August 6, 2012 at 10:23 pm

      I enjoyed the writing too and that alone makes me want to try another one.
      Mme Maigret, I know, she evokes a conservative version of a wife.

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  4. August 6, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    This makes me want to try reading it in French – mon français, c’est la catastrophe and it needs improving, so I might give this a shot. I have a soft spot for crime novels and I’ve read a few other Maigret novels, which I thought were alright but not amazing. This one sounds different, so it has me intrigued.

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    • August 6, 2012 at 10:29 pm

      I have better ideas for you to read easy crime fiction in French: try Claude Izner or Jean-Francois Parot. Here the vocabulary is a bit dated sometimes.

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      • August 6, 2012 at 10:33 pm

        Thanks for the tips, they’re very much appreciated! I’ll definitely look into these, but I think I’ll still try the Maigret. I’ve read another Maigret novel in French before and ça marchait 😉

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        • August 6, 2012 at 10:39 pm

          I wish you a lot of fun then.

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  5. August 6, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    That’s a nice descriptive passage! I’ve never read any of these, but did enjoy watching the British TV series based on the novels when I was growing up. Do you have a particular recommendation for one of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels?

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    • August 6, 2012 at 11:36 pm

      Hi Andrew,
      Have a look at Guy’s blog, he’s got a Simenon page and you’ll find something that catches your interest.

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  6. August 13, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    It’s a nice quote there, but I think the romans durs call to me more. Were I to read a Maigret (which I fear to do in case I get hooked on them, they are legion and would then consume my life) I think I’d want to start with one where he was already the character as usually depicted, then read this perhaps as a change of pace.

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    • August 14, 2012 at 2:24 pm

      The next one will be one of the romans durs. I’ll pick one on Guy’s blog. He was very talented. Good prose and written in a rush.

      You don’t have the image of Maigret as Bruno Kremer in your mind, don’t you? I do and this Maigret helped me forget it. Same thing for Nestor Burma, it’s hard to imagine him differently than looking like Guy Marchand. (I still have to try one of those)

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  7. August 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    I’ve never seen a Maigret film/show, so I haven’t any mental image of him. Nestor Burma?

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    • August 14, 2012 at 3:55 pm

      Nestor Burma is the character created by Léo Malet, a French writer of crime fiction and Noir. I think Guy has already read his books.

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