Commissaire Jules Maigret of the Police Judiciaire de Paris does not solve crimes, he solves people.
That is the essence of the world-weary yet doggedly determined detective, who operates in a period where the police could rely on hunches and evaluate suspects while dropping in on-duty to a bar for a Cavaldos or two.
Between 1931 and 1972, Georges Simenon published books about Maigret at a prolific rate: 75 novels and 28 short stories, selling over 80 million copies. The success of the stories meant that film and TV adaptations began almost as early as the novels were published. The most notable recent versions starred Rowan Atkinson. But since the books are more about the evocative atmosphere and contemplation on human nature and less about dense plotting and surprise twists, which propels much of the crime genre, they can be tricky to translate on screen.
This week the latest attempt hits cinemas, starring Gérard Depardieu and written and directed by Patrice Leconte. Simply titled Maigret, it’s based on 1954’s Maigret et la jeune morte or Maigret and the Dead Girl.
Like many Maigret books, you could explain the plot in a sentence – here, a young girl’s body is found and Maigret has to unravel the secrets of upper-class figures with something to hide, while also uncovering the life of the victim. It’s not about the plot, but the atmosphere and journey.
The mood and feeling is perfectly captured, and Georges Simenon’s son John Simenon says his father would have approved.
“The reason we called it Maigret instead of it being called Maigret and the Dead Girl, which would have expressed a specific adaptation, is that it captures I believe the essence of what Maigret is all about more than any other film.
“This is a film that is about Maigret more than anything else.
“In this film, he tries to solve what this young girl was all about. And he tries to understand her; it’s a journey into the life and misery of that poor woman. And by going through that journey, he eventually ends up solving the crime but solving the crime is a by-product of solving the person he’s trying to find out everything about.”
Today, John Simenon looks after his father’s estate. Readers, he says, are more or less 50/50 men and women but female readers are catching up and overtaking. “And the ages,” he adds, “it’s a spectrum between early 30s to mid 60s. I think it is difficult to get the full flavour of what Maigret stands for if you haven’t gone through a few crises yourself. If you haven’t, as they say in French, got a few holes in the fuselage.”
The problem with revisiting Maigret books is that there is always another you haven’t read. The prolific output is staggering. John Simenon shares some details about the process.
“At one point or another he felt that he needed to write. As he said, he’d go into the novel. Little by little he would start thinking about people he would feel comfortable living with for the duration of the book. Then these characters would begin to take more and more flesh. And just before starting the novel, he would put them in a crisis. And that’s when he would start the novel.
“So that process, the dust coalescing would take about three weeks. Then the writing would be one chapter a day. Then he would he would let the novel sit for about a week and it would take about three to four days to go over it and to make his revisions.”
John Simenon says his father was more of a sprinter rather than a marathon runner.
“The duration of the writing was not governed by the fact that he wanted books to be short. It was governed by his physical stamina. After 10 days he could not carry these characters in his brain any further. That is what made his books short.”
What makes Maigret stories a beacon in these darkening times is the motto that Georges Simenon and his creation, or counterpart, Maigret shared, to “understand and judge not”.
“I think my father, in many respects, was Maigret in his attitude towards life, in precisely trying to understand and not to judge. The difference is that he was more human. No matter how much he tried, he would still judge from time to time, sometimes painfully when he was judging his children!
“Life today is about people talking and talking, stating their side of things without ever listening to what the other person has to say. Everybody’s shouting but nobody’s listening. There’s no communication. And obviously everybody is absolutely convinced to be right.
“What Maigret stands for is to make us understand that we are all at one point both right and wrong. We are all at one point good and bad, at least capable of being good and bad. Everybody wants to feel that they’re good and that the other is bad. But I think that makes everybody feel miserable. Those who believe they represent perfect, shining, absolute goodness are insufferable!
“When you read a Maigret you feel good. It’s very unsettling sometimes, but at least you make peace with that unsettling aspect of humanity.”
This film’s deep empathy for a young woman who due to circumstance led a tragic life reflects the fact that in the Maigret stories, the marginalised, maligned, overlooked or outcast are often defended, protected and respected.
“I think for [Georges Simenon] what was important was trying to understand everybody from every walk of life. That included people who were looked down upon. Outcasts were very important for him, whether it be for economic reasons or for racial reasons or whatever, it was very important to show we are all humans.
“I always come to the conclusion that my father, he rejected the church but he’s very Christian when you come to think of it.
“You know, I really do appreciate The Big Issue. I had the chance to have dinner with John Bird a few years ago. He’s an amazing character, I was amazed at his knowledge about Maigret. And it doesn’t surprise me because your newspaper is really there to bridge a gap between people.”
Maigret is released in selected cinemas from 1 September
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!
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