One of the great achievements in European popular fiction during the twentieth century was the Inspector Maigret novels by Georges Simenon. Writing in French between 1931 and 1972, the Belgian Simenon produced seventy-five novels featuring the quiet, contemplative police detective whose great strength is his intuitive understanding of human nature.
The novels, which were relatively short (much less than half the size of today’s 400-page behemoths), achieved immense popularity throughout Europe and in translation in the United States. The Penguin Press is bringing the books back into print at the rate of one a month; thus republishing the entire canon will take a full six years.
The Maigret books are crime novels, not really mysteries and certainly not whodunits, as Maigret seldom deduces explicitly from clues. Nor are they conventional police procedurals, as police procedures are seldom the focus. Instead, the novels show Maigret pottering about, puffing on his pipe, getting to know the people and the place in which the murder took place, and then intuiting the solution to the mystery.
The books nonetheless entertain consistently. Maigret is an enjoyable person to be around: a thoroughly bourgeois Frenchman, married with no children and enjoying a placid home life when not on a case. Other than those superficial characteristics, however, we really don’t know much about him.
And that, I think, is where Simenon is triumphantly conventional and follows the pattern of many of the greatest mystery writers: his books are not about the detective, but instead about the people the detective is investigating.
This is in great contrast to modern mystery series, in which the personal life of the detective is a central concern and we are treated to long passages describing the sleuth’s musical tastes, childhood traumas, favorite wines, and other such minutiae that have nothing to do with the mystery.
In the era in which Simenon began producing the Maigret novels, by contrast, it was common for mystery writers to create relatively transparent detectives, ones with a few interesting characteristics and distinctive aspects (such as Lord Peter Wimsey’s aristocratic frivolousness, Perry Mason’s prizefighter pugnaciousness, Hercule Poirot’s fussiness, Ellery Queen’s erudition and bibliophilia, and Charlie Chan’s cheerful contentedness) but no deep inspection of the sleuth’s psychological workings and personal motivations.
In those books and stories, the emphasis is on the mystery, and that means it is of necessity on the lives, motives, and characteristics of the suspects in the case. Thus these mysteries are forced to take the reader to interesting places full of interesting people and concentrate our attention on them, because the transparent detective is not complex enough to sustain the novel on its own. Hence, what might appear to a modern reader as a weakness is actually a great strength.
Whereas many of today’s most prominent mystery series appeal to an interest in psychological explanations (consider, for example, the huge popularity of serial killer novels, in which rational motivations are not a consideration at all, leaving nothing but psychology) and sociological observations, mysteries of the Maigret type take a humbler approach, assessing human desires and values from a fairly straightforward normative perspective.
As the literary critic and belle-lettrist Joseph Bottum has noted, the function of the novel is to engage us in contemplation of how we live and how we should live. Simenon’s Maigret mysteries, and those of his “Golden Age” contemporaries in the United States and Great Britain, are built to do exactly that. That, plus immense writing talent, is what really makes the Maigret novels stand out and keeps them readable, enjoyable, and edifying decades after their original publication.