Another author who never disappoints is Georges Simenon, who writes the Inspector Maigret mysteries. When I see one of those I snatch it up and put aside whatever else I’m reading.
I just can’t wait to join Inspector Maigret as he puffs on his pipe, stokes up the stove in his office on the Quai des Orfevres, sends out for beer and sandwiches from the Brasserie Dauphin and proceeds to interrogate some colorful character snatched off the streets of Paris.
Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown and Hercule Poirot and all those guys all use deductive reasoning. Maigret uses inductive reasoning.
He mulls over the whole picture, over and over, pipe after pipe, aperitif after aperitif, immersing himself in the life of the victim — family, acquaintances, business associates, every tiny detail of their daily routine, until something just doesn’t fit. It seems to take a great deal of Calvados and beer other forms of alcohol to do the job properly.
And of course, since Maigret is French, we always hear what he has to eat, and it always sounds delicious.
Very occasionally he might mention some puzzling bit of evidence to Madame Maigret back in their apartment in the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. She never butts in, but quite often she will give him a telling insight into the character of a suspect or a witness or a victim.
They didn’t have children, you know, and one always senses a little pang of regret about that — as when Maigret’s old friend introduces him to his strapping young son — but as they stroll arm in arm, as they like to do, through their favorite little park, they make a touching picture of connubial harmony.
And every Maigret book gives a glimpse into some aspect of Parisian life that could only come from someone with firsthand experience. Simenon was a police reporter in Paris for many years.
There’s one about a murder on a barge on the canals, so you find out all about the system of locks and the bars where the boatmen hang out, and there’s one about the hobos who live in shanties under bridges. We also get glimpses into the lives of butchers, strip club owners, diplomats, gangsters, burglars, pimps, and all kinds of bohemian types. This is Paris, after all.
The French have a system where an “examining magistrate” is put in charge of each investigation and gets to boss the police around. Often there are smart-ass examining magistrates who screw things up, but they generally end up looking like morons. The smart ones learn to let Maigret handle things his own way.
Simenon wrote some books without Inspector Maigret, but those don’t really do it for me. You need to look for Maigret in the title.
I love all the details of Maigret’s life — deciding whether to ride the bus or take a taxi, looking for a double-decker bus where he can smoke his pipe, climbing the steps to his office, greeting Old Joseph the messenger, dispatching his inspectors Janvier, LaPointe and Torrence, on missions around the city and ultimately wresting a confession from the guilty party in a marathon interrogation at the Quai des Orfevres.
I’ve mentioned some authors who do not disappoint — Hammett, Sjowall/Wahloo and Van Gulik — who wrote a handful of books. But Simenon wrote dozens and dozens and dozens of books and seems utterly incapable of producing a single dud. When you stumble onto a guy like that you know you’re really onto something. I can’t tell you how many wonderfully enjoyable hours I’ve spent in the Police Judiciaire and the Boulevard Richard Lenoir.
In this respect, Simenon reminds me of Alexander Dumas, so I guess he’s another heir to Pushkin and the blind Greek guy.