Maigret – William Shaw
Watching TV these days, you’d think that something odd is happening to the form of the story. Instead of watching a series, we’ve now started to devour whole boxed sets of Broadchurch or The Bridge. In an era where the internet is supposed to be shortening our attention span, we’re now happy to sit down and watch 47 hours and 32 minutes of Breaking Bad. Instead of a single story line, we’re now following a whole delicious complex interweaving of stories within a single landscape.
But crime writers have been using this form for decades, from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, through Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and right up to Henning Mankell’s Wallander. (And who knows what Sue Grafton is going to do when her Kinsey Millhone series reaches Z?)
So maybe it’s time to tip a hat to the greatest of all at this form; George Simeon’s Maigret series, ran for at least 75 novels and almost half as many short stories, beginning with Pietr the Latvian, published in 1930. You’ll have had to be hiding under a rock not to have heard that Penguin Classics have begun republishing the entire series last year.
That said, the Maigret novels are not universally popular with crime fans, especially not those who prefer their crime to be a whodunnit. Simenon’s series is not about the genius unlocking some complex mystery. Maigret is clever, but he’s no intellectual.
Instead, Simenon’s books are as much about the milieu of crime and the characters who get caught up in it. It’s that landscape again, one that you can return to, over and over again, peopled by the finely drawn characters Maigret meets, from the French tea-sipping bourgeoise to the working class men who get drunk on marc and absinthe in the Paris bistros.
If you hadn’t read a Maigret, at this point you’d probably be thinking that these books sound slow, arty and elegaic. Actually that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Maigret books bristle with tension. Crime writing is about compressing a narrative; a few telling brushstrokes can set a scene. If a book’s tension is going to be maintained the writer has to create that landscape as efficiently as he can. Simenon is a genius when it comes creating his landscape in just a few sentences; and then leaving the rest to your imagination.
My favourite pieces of Maigret scene-setting are usually maritime. It’s probably because Simenon grew up by the docks in the Belgian city of Liege, but he never seems to lose a fascination with canals and docklands. Try The The Carter of La Providence, previously published as Lock 14 for his fascination with boats and boatmen. (A word of warning. Keep keeping track of Maigret books is a nightmare. They’ve all been issued under multiple titles and the new numbering on Penguin titles on the Amazon site also doesn’t tally with the order they were issued in.)
And what about this, from the first chapter of The Grand Banks Café…In just four sentences you find Maigret sitting in the caféwith a beer and watches the workmen, clothes “stiff with salt”unload the trawler Océan as an overseer in a boater tallies the weight of the catch by the “raw light of Acetylene lamps, hung from the rigging”.
The last of the sentences goes: A rank, stomach-churning smell, which distance did nothing to lessen, seeped into the bar, where the heat made it even more oppressive.
See? If that works for you like it works for me, you’re there already, aren’t you? And you know something bad is about to happen. And once you’re hooked on the series, Breaking Bad is like the blink of any eye in comparison.
William Shaw is the CRA Featured Author for August 2014. Read more on his CRA Author Profile