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Maigret as a bleu

August 5, 2012 19 comments

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.

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