NovellasinNovember provided the perfect opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Georges Simenon’s pipe-smoking French detective, Commissaire Jules Maigret.
First published in 1960, Maigret In Court is rather more sombre in tone than the other books I’ve read from this series. The police procedural aspects are present as always combined with the usual insights on human nature. What’s different about this book however is that we find the inspector in a reflective mood, contemplating the inadequacies of the French judicial system as a reliable mechanism to determine guilt.
Much of the early part of the novel takes place inside a court room. Maigret is in the witness box giving evidence in the case of the mild-mannered frame-maker Gaston Meurant. Meurant is on trial for the double murder of his aunt and a small child in her care. It looks to be an open and shut case but Maigret remains unconvinced of the man’s guilt.
In this book Maigret spends most of his time either in the courtroom or in his office at Quai des Orfèvres while the men in his team get on with the work of trailing other suspects.
Initially I was concerned that the focus on the courtroom would mean the loss of what, to me, is one of the most enjoyable aspects of any Maigret novel: the Parisian backdrop. In most tiles within this series, we’re taken through the streets of the city and into its cafes and bars. The last title I read, Maigret and The Headless Corpse, had the inspector pay several visits to a bistro in the space of a few hours. In Maigret In Court, however there is only one lunch in a bistro. It’s his officers who get to spend time in the bars while their boss has to make do with a sandwich and a beer at his desk in the Quai des Orfèvres.
The feeling of being short changed was quickly pushed aside however as I got more engrossed in Maigret’s attitude to his career. He’s always an interesting figure but this story reveals a new dimension to his character: his despondency about court procedures and the jury system.
After many years of giving evidence, he knows that his testimonies only provide part of the truth; they give the facts but can never convey the essence of a situation or the nature of an individual.
Everything he had just said was true but he hadn’t conveyed the full weight of things, their density, their texture, their smell.
The trial process over-simplifies everything in Maigret’s opinion. The jurors and the examining magistrate get only the broad brush details, never able to spend time with the accused or see them in their normal environment when they would get to fully understand who they are. Instead, every accused person becomes a sketch, almost a caricature.
Did not the court distort everything? Not through the fault of the judges, juries or witnesses, nor because of the law or the process but beause human beings suddenly found themselves summed up, as it were, in a few phrases, a few sentences.
Maigret is equally disenchanted with the attitudes of the crowds who turn up to hear the trial, expecting excitement, confrontations and dramatic revelations. Only to be disappointed by a “seemingly innocent series of questions and answers.”
Why is he in such a pensive mood? The answer lies within the first few pages: his impending retirement. In two years he would be forced, because of his age, to retire. He’d thought about it often in the past and looked on it with “joyful anticipation.” But now it’s no longer a vague idea but a logical and imminent reality made more concrete by the recent purchase of the house where he and Madam Maigret would spend their old age.
It will be interesting to see if this mood will affect the remaining titles in the series. There were 20 more published after Maigret in Court so, fortunately, we’re not going to lose the inspector any time soon.
Maigret In Court by Georges Simenon: Footnotes
This is the 55th title out of the 75 tales written by Simenon that featured his most famous creation. The series began in 1931 and ran for four decades, concluding with Maigret and Monsieur Charles, published in 1972. Simenon called his Maigret output “sketches” to differentiate them from his psychological novels, or romans durs. But as Graeme Macrae Burnet comments in an article for The Guadian: “If the books are sketches, they are the sketches of an old master.”
Penguin Random House republished all 75 Maigret novels over a period of six years. My copy of Maigret in Court is a Penguin Classics Reprint edition from 2018.