Georges Simenon’s Maigret And The Ghost

In the English-speaking world, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes holds eternal dominion as literature’s foremost sleuth. Among French speakers, however, the fictional Jules Maigret, commissaire of the Paris Brigade Criminelle, holds pride of place. Maigret was the creation of Georges Simenon, a Belgian-born writer who began working as a journalist at the age of 15, giving him both the habit of prolific writing – he published almost 500 novels in his lifetime – and an early exposure to an underworld of crime, prostitution and radical politics that would serve him well in his fiction. Maigret And The Ghost is a hybrid book, containing three long short stories, only two of which involve Maigret and Simenon’s famous detective fiction; the third story, “Three Beds In Manhattan,” describes a growing love between two very lonely strangers.

I do not know whether or not Simenon was familiar with Sherlock Holmes – though it’s difficult to imagine a crime writer escaping Conan Doyle’s influence – but the character of Jules Maigret, so beloved in French culture, demands comparison with Doyle’s detective all the same. Both Holmes and Maigret are geniuses, and are described as such by their authors and the surrounding characters, but there is a certain taciturnity about Maigret that differentiates him from Sherlock Holmes, who is not above being boastful in success or while on the chase. Holmes is also considerably more eccentric than Maigret, and this eccentricity alienates all but his closest friends; even John Watson, his roommate, best friend and chronicler, finds Holmes intolerable at times. Maigret, by contrast, works well with others, and inspires loyalty in his subordinates within the police force. Small wonder, then, that Holmes works as a self-employed detective, while Maigret commands an entire police department, or that Maigret is happily married, while Holmes is a permanent bachelor. But there is a larger difference between the worlds the two men inhabit. The London of Sherlock Holmes remains, essentially, a good and noble place, preyed on by criminals, certainly, but home to both hard-working men and women and well-meaning bureaucrats and high-minded public servants. Simenon paints Maigret’s Paris in far darker shades, and there are few truly innocent characters; everyone possesses a secret or harbours some deeper, darker passion than they’re willing to let on. The French critic, novelist and Nobel laureate François Mauriac paid Simenon this compliment: “I am afraid I may not have the courage to descend right to the depths of this nightmare which Simenon describes with such unendurable art.” Mauriac, like most of us, prefers not to notice what Simenon makes quite explicit in his fiction: that mankind’s nobler passions often lose out to the baser ones, and that the difference between a criminal and a citizen might not be as substantial as the latter would like to suppose.

In “Three Beds In Manhattan,” for example, a middle-aged, out-of-work French actor, Francois Combe, moves by himself to Manhattan to escape his wife’s adultery and the pains it has caused him. He lives, despite his relative wealth, in a squalid apartment without a telephone, and frequents bars alone, drinking away his woes. It is at such a bar that he meets Catherine, a woman in her early 30s, whose loneliness matches his, and the story unfolds over the short period of time following their first-night tryst, as the two fall in love. But this is no ordinary romance. Catherine quickly confesses to him that she went to the bar out of desperation, resolved to go home with the first man that spoke to her (“I was so alone, so hopelessly alone, I was so low, and I knew that I’d never pull out of it again, so I decided to leave with the first man who showed up, no matter who he was”), and Francois tortures himself by insisting she recount the details of her sexual past. The foundation of their coupling being mutual loneliness and self-loathing, actual romance is slow in coming:

He watched without excitement as she undressed. He had no trouble remaining cold and detached. She was not the beautiful, irresistible creature that she imagined herself. Her body, like her face, wore the patina of life.

As he contemplated her supreme self-assurance, he felt an overwhelming rage rising within him. He was carried away by a mad desire to wipe out everything, consume everything, possess everything. Furiously he bore down on her, his eyes staring and vicious. She watched him stupidly, paralysed with fright. He seized her, crushed her in his arms, swept her off her feet, plunged in deeply as though determined to root out forever the spell by which she had bewitched him…

When the peace of fulfillment had succeeded the storm of the senses, Kay (Catherine) wept. She did not cry like Winnie would cry beyond the wall, but like a little child. And it was the voice of a little child that stammered, ‘You…you hurt me.’

I am struck, simultaneously, by the brutality of this passage, and by the thought that it could never be published – or even written – today. It reveals something very ugly about Francois, and perhaps about male lust; he is possessive, jealous and violent, all at once. And yet he also cares deeply for her, and will demonstrate that caring as the story progresses. Modern readers with modern sensibilities will recoil at the idea that this story is a romance, and yet that’s exactly what Simenon has written: a romance between two lonely, isolated figures, who must overcome their suspicions and insecurities and petty jealousies and embrace their vulnerability. If it is, at times, repellant, it is also deeply moving, and such romances are no doubt more common than we would like to suppose.

Simenon is most famous for his detective fiction – for his genre fiction – but he defies such simple categorization, both in his writing and in his understanding of the darker aspects of human nature.