George Simenon’s celebrated Inspector Maigret series has kept me company during many treadmill miles and hotel nights.
I’ve never read any of the books until recently but I’ve experienced about 20 audio versions over the years. My favourites are the old radio broadcasts I found via ITunes, starring Maurice Denham as the French detective. I was surprised to discover they were commissioned by BBC Radio 3 in 1976; I’d have dated them much earlier – the 1950s even. They have a comforting crackly sound track and are rather under-recorded but I loved the atmosphere they conveyed.
Maigret And The Headless Corpse has now become the first time I’ve encountered the Inspector on the page. It was published in French in 1955, the 47th title in a series that began in 1931 and came to an end with book number 75, Maigret and Monsieur Charles in 1972.
As in so many of these books, the storyline of Maigret And The Headless Corpse is quite straightforward. There are none of the twisty plots or dramatic revelations you get in most detective fiction.
It begins with the discovery of a dismembered body, at a lock along the Canal St-Martin, in the northern part of Paris. Maigret and his young assistant Lapointe believe there is a connection between the corpse and a bistro along the canal bank whose owner has gone missing.
But the man’s wife is unperturbed by her husband’s disappearance or the possibility he might have been murdered. Maigret is fascinated by Madam Calas. She was pretty once he surmised but now her mouth sags and there are deep circles under her eyes. She seems completely weary, lacking all interest in life and indifferent to what people think of her.
His interest in discovering what happened to bring this woman to such a low point, has Maigret return repeatedly to the bistro.
There was no lack of colourful individuals in a neighbourhood like Quai de Valmay. But he had seldom encountered the kind of inertia he had seen in that woman. It was hard to explain. When most people look at you there is some sort of exchange, however small. A contact is established even if that contact is a kind of defiance.
With her, on the contrary, there was nothing.
It doesn’t take Maigret long to discover Madam Calas has lovers and she’s a drinker.
Both features of her life explain her neglected physical appearance and her mechanical responses to questions. But they are not enough to satisfy Maigret’s need to know WHY.
The story that he finally uncovers is one of young dreams that are unrealised. Disillusionment experienced at a young age developed into a belief that is no joy in life and no hope. It’s just something to be endured.
Reading this book I got the feeling that Maigret’s interest lies more in the psychology of human nature than it does in solving the crime. At one point in the novel he muses how he would have loved to become ‘a mender of destinies’ instead of a policeman, helping people who’d taken a wrong direction in life, back to where they should have been.
Yes he wants to find the culprit and quickly (if only to get the examining magistrate off his back). But the procedure of doing so arouses only a “technical curiosity” when what really matters to him is the human drama that is played out among the key figures.
Another aspect of this book that struck me forcibly. I knew from my experience with the audio versions, that Maigret likes a tipple or two, a glass at lunch or with his evening meal for example. Cafes and bars are where he does much of his thinking about his current case. But in Maigret And The Headless Corpse there’s a lot more than just the occasional glass.
The day the body is discovered for example, the Inspector has two glasses of white wine in the bistro before lunch, drinks with his lunch, then returns to the bistro for more white wine. On other days he takes an aperitif at a brasserie and a few glasses of calvados at the bistro. But this is nothing compared to his intake on the night a lawyer comes to the city with information about Madam Calas’s background.
Not surprisingly, the next day he doesn’t feel too good.
He couldn’t remember ever having such a bad headache on waking, which meant that he had drunk a lot. He had seldom come home drunk and what most annoyed him was that he hadn’t been aware of drinking, it had happened gradually one glass after another.
I suspect many of us have woken up wondering how we could have ended up like this!
Maigret And the Headless Corpse by Georges Simenon
About the book: This is book number 47 in the series, published in French in 1955 and in English in 1968. My edition is a reprint from Penguin who began a reissue of the entire Maigret collection six years ago and published the final one in January 2020.
About the author: Georges Simenon was an extremely prolific author, with more than 200 novels, 150 novellas and several autobiographical works in his own name. He also wrote scores of pulp novels using a score of pseudonyms. The Maigret series remains his best known and most popular work.
The Inspector has proved a draw for television and film producers ever since the late 1950s. French Maigrets include Jean Gabin, who played him on the big screen in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Jean Richard (1967-1990) and Bruno Cremer (1991-2005).
British adaptations began in 1960 with Rupert Davies in the lead role for 51 episodes made for the BBC. In 1992 it was the turn of the independent television channels in the UK to air a 12 episode series starring Michael Gambon.
Most recently Rowan Atkinson took on the role in four feature-length dramas based on Simenon’s books. Atkinson who said he had been “a devourer of Maigret novels for years”, played the Inspector as a thoughtful man conscious of his own fragility. The performance was so constrained however it was nigh on impossible to feel any connection to the character. It was a long way from the Maigret I have in my imagination.