Georges Simenon, Madame Maigret's Own Case (Harcourt Harvest, 1991)
Georges Simenon, Maigret and The Apparition (Harcourt Harvest, 1980)
Georges Simenon, Maigret and The Burglar's Wife (Harcourt Harvest, 1991)
Georges Simenon, Maigret and The Spinster (Harcourt Harvest, 1982)
Georges Simenon, Maigret and the Wine Merchant (Harcourt Harvest, 1980)
Georges Simenon, Maigret in Holland (Harcourt Harvest, 1994)
Georges Simenon, Maigret's Boyhood Friend (Harcourt Harvest, 1981)

One impression above all remained with him, though he could not have explained why. Having crossed the Place de la Bastille, he was passing a little bistro on his way down Boulevard Henry IV. The door, like the door of most cafes on this cold morning, was shut for the first time for months. As he went past, someone opened it, and Maigret's nostrils were assailed by a gust of fragrance which was forever to remain with him as the very quintessence of Paris at daybreak: the fragrance of frothy coffee and hot croissants spiced with a hint of rum.' -- George Simenon's Cécile est morte (Maigret and the Spinster) as translated by Eileen Ellenbogen.

Now let's assume that you've never heard of Maigret as I had not before I reviewed the Maigret series that had Michael Gambon as the French detective. I had possibly, though my memory is rather elusive on this point, read one or two of the novels decades ago, but I certainly remembered little if anything about Maigret when the videos came in for review.

So I said in that review, 'What do you need to know about him? According to sources I looked at, this is his story. Jules Amedée François Maigret was born on February 13, 1887, in Saint-Fiacre, near Moulins, in Central France. His father, Evariste Maigret, who worked on a estate as a bailiff (stewart on the property) died in 1908. After leaving medical school, which did not appeal to him, Maigret moved to Paris and married Louise Léonard in 1912; the couple soon moved from the Place des Vosges to their permanent address, 132 Boulevard Richard-Lenoir in the 11th district of Paris. Maigret's first investigation was at age 26 in 1913. He was promoted Inspector at age 35 in 1922, then to Commissioner in 1928. His work during World War II in the Free France remains untold as George Simenon avoided writing novels set in that sad period. It is generally estimated that Maigret retired at 69 and/or c. 1956 to his holiday house in Meug-sur-Loire, where he and Madame Maigret lived happily ever after -- though he's still active in solving several mysteries long after his retirement!

He has a highly refined sense of honor, dresses well, like good food and drink, smokes a pipe, and generally abhors violence. Maigret is what almost everyone, including his wife, addresses him by. Oh, and he both loves and adores his wife. I'd say that he's not a terribly complex man, nor has he anything that marks him as one of those darker detectives that show up so often in English mystery literature like P.D. James' Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh or R.D. Wingfield's Detective Inspector Jack Frost. No, Maigret, if he has an English counterpart, would find kin in Chief Inspector Thomas Barnaby, a man who well could be drawn upon the character Simenon created.'

This is not some dark, angst ridden detective who broods upon his lot. No, Maigret likes good food including raw oysters, great wine, conversation, and company of his wife. He is a peasant at heart, no more and no less than an archetypal French commoner.

Now the seven short novels, averaging a mere one hundred and seventy pages in length, that the publicist at Harcourt sent along for us to review are but a very small fraction of the 75 novels and 28 short stories that Simenon produced in this series. Over the years, Maigret has been translated into English by more folks than one can keep track of. Are they faithful to the original? Possibly, possibly not. It can be stated, as does Peter Foord in his article, 'The Translation of Maigret Texts into English', that 'I cannot recall that Simenon made any objections to the various English titles given to his novels and short stories. Practically all the time that he was writing, he negotiated the terms and contracts with his publishers by himself, without the aid of agents, and in this respect he proved to be a very good businessman.' I suspect that you don't really care if the translations are all that accurate so long as the novels themselves are a good read, so let's deal with them on that basis.

That they are entertaining is beyond argument. Perhaps not quite as entertaining as the video version: Gambon brings Maigret to life in a way that the English translation of the novels doesn't quite do for me, but quite worth the afternoon it takes to read one. Yes, I said one afternoon. In this age of thousand page novels that are impossible to even finish in a months time, these are sheer delights. And Simenon, like his Maigret chracter, loved the good life, so writing was a means to an end only!

Simenon is a great writer when it comes to creating both characters and the action around those characters, or at least the translators all did a good job of making their versions work well. As I said, I don't read French beyond that of understanding a newspaper article in a general sense, so I can only judge them in their English translation. Many French phrases are left untranslated in order to provide atmosphere. I have older translations of other Maigret novels littered with French words, as if a word storm blew through the novel. Do note however that the titles in English bear no resemblance to the French meaning -- 'Cecile is dead' is the literal translation of Cécile est morte, not Maigret and the Spinster! I don't blame the marketers at Harcourt for doing so as undoubtedly Maigret and the Spinster was deemed a much more saleable title!

Go ahead -- grab a couple of these at your local library, find your favorite bistro, get a carafe of wine, preferably a decent blanc, a few huîtres sur demi de coquille, and settle in for some fine reading. You'll find Maigret a charming companion for the afternoon. Do remember to save him some of those huîtres sur demi de coquille!

[Cat Eldridge]