Analysis of Georges Simenon’s My Friend Maigret

A man is murdered on the island paradise of Porquerelles, located off the southern French coast in the Mediterranean Sea, in this novel by the Belgium-born author Georges Simenon (1903–89). Maigret, the famous detective, is notifi ed, and decides to attend, on the basis that the man, a tramp and small-time crook called Marcellin, had talked openly and in wide company about his great “friend” Maigret on the night before his murder. This so-called relationship has become the talk of the island, and when Maigret eventually arrives he is greeted as if he were a minor celebrity, something he fi nds both disconcerting and curiously intriguing.

In reality, as soon becomes clear, the two men had never been great friends. They knew each other only in the way that policeman and criminal know each other, particularly if that criminal is a persistent and regular offender. Perhaps the most powerful link between them is Marcellin’s ex-lover, Ginette; Maigret had helped her some years previously when, after contracting tuberculosis, she required treatment in a sanatorium. Thus, when Ginette returns to the island, apparently for Marcellin’s funeral, Maigret’s interest is stirred, and he becomes convinced that she is implicated in the half-truths and lies that characterize the story of Marcellin’s death.

Georges Simenon, pictured in 1962. Photograph: Stuart Heydinger/the Observer

Despite his willingness to leave the rain and cold of Paris, and to relocate in the warm southern regions of France, Maigret’s enjoyment is tempered somewhat by the presence of a British inspector, Mr. Pyke, who is shadowing him to learn more about how the French police go about their business. As a consequence, the French detective spends the majority of his time worrying about what his English counterpart is thinking, about his character, his methods, and his general standards of behavior.

Maigret is soon seduced by the dreamy world of Porquerelles and its various and varied local inhabitants. There is de Greef, the estranged painter and would-be-anarchist, and his gal-in-tow, the doting Anna; Charlot, the full-time professional criminal with an uncanny knack for knowing lots of things about lots of things; and Philippe de Moricourt and his elderly “employer,” Mrs. Wilcox. Add to these Lechat, the French inspector; JoJo, the sensitive and mysteriously sensual young waitress at the hotel; and Paul, the endlessly obliging proprietor, and what Simenon gives the reader is a richly textured canvas of characters and motives and petty jealousies to titillate the imagination and misdirect the powers of interpretation. Set on an isolated island, with such a well-defi ned yet limited range of characters, this is detective story of the classical kind.

Yet the greatest triumph of the novel, in literary terms, is not the characterization; it is the setting. Simenon is at the height of his powers in his depiction of the landscape and the local fl ora and fauna that brings the Mediterranean haven to life in all its textures, sounds, smells, and idiosyncrasies. His prose is as good as it can be, crisp and apposite as it delivers the delights of weather and lifestyle, while at the same time beautifully conveying the sense of a sinister counterculture beneath the idyllic facade. He is subtle and yet elaborate, concise yet effusive. The novel contains some of the best lines he ever wrote: “Sunday lay so heavily in the air as to become almost nauseating.”

By the end of the novel, Maigret has been both seduced and repulsed by Porquerelles. His police work has been solid rather than inspired, moving from initial suppositions to end results, but in a way that leaves him mostly unsatisfi ed. He has tried his best but has not been able to deliver a case of evidence that is proof beyond doubt. As such, the conclusion is open, an ending that satisfi es the reader through its poetry and its philosophy rather than its delivery of the tight closure so typical of crime fi ction narratives. For even though Maigret has discovered the guilty parties, and the motives, and has succeeded as far as he can in ensuring that justice might prevail, both he, and ultimately the reader, are left wondering whether in the real world that is really enough.

Detective Novels and Novelists

Assouline, Pierre. Simenon: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1997. Becker, Lucille Frackman. Georges Simenon Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999.
Eskin, Stanley G. Simenon: A Critical Biography. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987.
Lemoine, Michel. Index des personnages de Georges Simenon. Brussels: Éditions Labor, 1985.
Marnham, Patrick. The Man Who Was not Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon. London: Bloomsbury, 1992

Categories: Detective Novels, Literature, Novel Analysis

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