MY FRIEND MAIGRET (1949) by Georges Simenon

Simenon_My-Friend-Maigret_penguin_1961There is evil in paradise in this Maigret story, which some critics (including Julian Symons) consider to be among the best of the series (no mean feat with over 100 to choose from). It was later adapted for French TV, twice. Unusually, the story is filtered through the eyes of Inspector Pyke of Scotland Yard, sent to study the ‘methods’ of his celebrated colleague.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge; for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here); and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Perhaps it was the impeccable correctness of Mr Pyke that made him coarse …”

The story is outwardly straightforward – in the tiny island of Porquerolles (a real place by the way), ex-jailbird Marcellin is shot dead after boasting that Maigret used to be a friend of his. The Commissaire, suffering through a wet Parisian summer, ships off to the island with Pyke. There he finds a tropical paradise with more than a touch of Joseph Conrad about it, its inhabitants having all apparently succumbed to a permanent torpor and indolence. Maigret will eventually succumb too if he stays long enough, he is told. Everything happens in an around the local hotel-restaurant, not insignificantly named the Arche de Noé, where various types at the end of their tether seem to have washed up. There is the wealthy middle-aged Mrs Wilcox, living on her yacht in exile with her young male ‘secretary'; the nihilistic Dutch painter De Greef and his teenage girlfriend Anna; a British Major late of the Indian Army; a dentist who threw in his practice, and his family, when he came to the island; a young maid Jojo; the petty crook Charlot. But why would any of them want to kill Marcellin, who had been living as a beach bum for years – was this really an attack on Maigret by proxy?

"Courtade" by Prométhée33 - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Courtade.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Courtade.JPG

“Courtade” by Prométhée33 – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Courtade.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Courtade.JPG

What makes the book stand out is partly the descriptions of how the island, subject to powerful Mistral winds, affects Maigret but also the strange competition that sets itself up with Pyke. Maigret is now clearly a celebrity, visited by Scotland Yard so that they can improve themselves, and used by criminals as a calling card. And yet having Pyke there makes him question everything he does, keeping score of how well they both do in the investigation – this adds a great wrinkle to what is, in other ways, a very typical Simenon story (which, as usual, finds little sympathy for young men who accompany older women for money or who have been too weak to detach themselves from their mothers). Ultimately Maigret hangs around the hotel and ferrets out the solution by listening and by intuition, arrives to a bitter ending in which he ends up punching one of the suspects in face in sheer anger (he apologises afterwards, but only to Pyke). It also has a series of strong scenes between him and Ginette, Marcellin’s ex-girlfriend. Years before Maigret had taken her under his wing after putting Marcellin in jail and got her in a sanatorium – but now, heading towards middle age, it turns out that she runs a bordello for an old crone who lives on the island with a weak-willed son, a man Ginette is planning to marry as soon as the old lady dies. Not exactly edifying and romantic and the final death in the story certainly hammers this rather bitter view of humanity home.

“You health, Monsieur Maigret. I never dared to hope that I should one day have the honour of having you to stay.”

Originally published as Mon Ami Maigret, I own two editions of this – one in Italian, translated by Eileen Romano. and one in English, translated by Nigel Ryan. I am quoting from the latter (the cover of my 1961 Penguin reprint can be found at the top of the page), but found it in many ways unsatisfactory – not only does it delete all Simenon’s original chapter titles but occasionally also falls pray to some risible franglais – for instance:

“Used he to go see her in Nice?”

and later we have:

“On the walls were hung engravings …”

The is a great Maigret book, for its linear story so well told and the use of Pyke to make Maigret question himself and his ‘methods’ (which he denies actually exist) and its wonderful atmosphere. The book does lose a few points though just because by being one of the (many) cases in which our protagonist is taken away from Paris, it means that the supporting cast of characters are all missing – this means we have to do without Madame Maigret and the so-called ‘faithful four’ made up of Lucas, Janvier, Lapointe and Torrence (who keeps re-appearing despite having been killed in the first official Maigret novel), which is a shame. So, how did the book fare on screen?

Simenon_My-Friend-Maigret_penguinThe novel has been adapted for the small screen at least twice. The first is from 1973, made as part of  the long-running series Les enquêtes du commissaire Maigret (1967-1990) starring Jean Richard, and co-stars the mighty Gerard Depardieu in the role of De Greef. While this is available on DVD, it doesn’t come with English-language subtitles. You can get most of it on YouTube (see here) but only with automatically generated translated subtitles, which is a bit of a wretched experience after a while to be honest. So I won’t focus too much on this version, not least because it is said that Simenon apparently hated Richard in the role. So instead I am focusing on the 2001 adaptation made for the Franco-Belgian series of feature-length adaptations of the books starring Bruno Cremer. These originally ran from 1991 to 2005 for a total of 54 films, all about 90 minutes in length. The 1973 version is very faithful and does a good job of capturing the exotic atmosphere of the island, which is so crucial to the story. The later adaptation, though basically pretty faithful, is a little bit odd frankly.

For starters it changes several of the character names (Lechat becomes Lachenal, De Greef is now Deferre, Charlot is Carrouge etc.) and even the island has been renamed (but maybe this is precisely because it is a real place)! And more to the point, this version is much less ably presented. In addition Mrs Wilcox now has a villa and no longer resides on a yacht for no very good reason (other than expediency – I guess the producers couldn’t find a boat), whereas in the book her peripatetic existence was a major part of the character. On the whole the 2001 version is a real disappointment because despite sticking mostly to the plot and characters, it ultimately betrays Simenon’s intentions by making the protagonist much more of a sentimentalist and imposing a happy ending on the story (and even inventing another crime for him to solve successfully, to make his triumph even more assured). Thus, despite the glossy production value and period look (roughly 1958, though not spelled out), the 2001 edition disappoints. not least because although Cremer is right for the role, his wardrobe is strangely unconvincing, looking like he is trapped in the 1990s while everyone else is in the 1950s. The 1973 version, which was set in contemporary times, proves much more satisfying and much closer to bringing the actual novel to the screen. The 2001 version does have however one special treat for fans of the BBC mystery show Death in Paradise as a very young Sara Martins co-stars as the maid, Jojo.

DVD Availability:  The 2001 version s is available on DVD in France in an edition with optional English subtitles – this is unusual with French DVDs so is well worth getting, even if the adaptation itself is a bit lacking. There are plenty of extras, but they sadly have no subtitles. It is also available in the US but apparently it is technically disappointing.

Mon Ami Maigret (2001)
Director: Bruno Gantillon
Producer: Robert Nador, Ève Vercel
Screenplay: Stéphane Palay
Cinematography: Mário de Carvalho
Art Direction: François Chauvaud, Clara Vinhais
Music: Laurent Petitgirard
Cast: Bruno Cremer, Michael Morris (Pyke), Annie Sinigalia (Ginette), Sara Martins (Jojo), Jean-Michel Portal (Yann Deferre [De Greef]), Anna Korwin (Mrs. Wilcox), Marc Chapiteau (Carrouge [Charlot])

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘mystery that involves water’ category:

vintage-golden-card-marked-18

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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44 Responses to MY FRIEND MAIGRET (1949) by Georges Simenon

  1. Sergio – Interesting that you have two translations. I do think some of the novels in this series are better than others, but Simenon’s weakest is better than a lot of people’s best. And although I confess this is one I’ve not read, it sounds as though it takes a really interesting perspective. And it’s interesting to explore the idea of a place having that kind of effect on people…

  2. Colin says:

    Haven’t read about this in too much detail here as I have the book sitting on the shelf back in Athens and, even though i know you’re careful with spoilers, it’s one I want to come to fresh.

    • You’re right Colin, even if the plot is rarely the point in a Maigret book, it’s a terrific read and best to some to it as new and unencumbered as possible in my view.

      • Colin says:

        Yes, looks like a nice slim volume too – Looking forward to it actually.

        • Oh yes – indeed, I would be happy to be disproved on this, but I do not believe theat there are any Maigret editions that run to as many as 200 pages – usually nearer to 150 – I think Simenon would give himself about 10 days to write it – if he didn’t get it finished, he would throw it away and start again.

  3. Conor says:

    “Used he to go see her?” is acceptable Standard English, I think, and is less awkward than “Did he use to go to see her?” which though correct sounds archaic in its use of the verb “to use”. The common substitute is “Did he used to”, which looks terribly ungrammatical to me.
    What’s wrong with “On the walls were hung engravings …” by the way?
    Thanks for writing this review. I read the novel 35 years ago because of Julian Symons, who is still about the best judge of many things in the mystery novel, I think. I’m one of those people who doesn’t “get” Simenon though!

    • Hello Conor, yes, I agree with a lot of what Symons had to say and agree with him that this is a very fine example from the series. I think we may have to disagree about the translation (which for the most part is actually very good – but then Simenon deliberately used a simplified vocabulary and eschewed idiomatic phrasing for this series). I thing “Engravings were hung on the wall” is clearly preferable (subject and object in the standard order) – I thing “Did he use to” is much less problematic than “Used he” – now that really is archaic!

      • robert says:

        Colette, a popular French writer of the first half of the 20th century, received many of young Simenon’s first writings. And according to Simenon, after a first refusal from Colette to read them, she finally told him to be less literary. Don’t write “literature” she told him. So he made his style as simple and direct as possible. And indeed, whether it is in his Maigret novels or in his many other, his style is very simple and direct. So I suppose any translation should take this in account.
        there is a kind of legend about the Simenon “writing miracle” (or whatever you call it) because he did write more novels/short stories/articles or others than you can count. In today’s standard people would definitely think that an author writing more than 3 or 4 novels a year is outsourcing!
        In a tv documentary the narrator was basically saying that for his Maigret novels, he was spending 1 or 2 weeks thinking about the novel, then was locking himself in his room for about 1 weeks (losing few kilos :) ), after what the novel was finished.

        • Which is amazing – apprently that is close to how Rex Stout wrote his Wolfe novels too. Simenon was incredibly prolific – literally some 300 books just inthe interwar years – extraordinary! And amazingly never any suggestion that he used a ‘ghost’ – and unlike the likes of John Creasey, Barbara Cartland and Edgar Wallace, he had the critics on his side and got taken seriously – now that really is an accomplishment.

  4. I read a fair amount of Simenon in my day, but after a while they tended to blend, and I stopped looking out for them. But this sounds like a good one, and I like the idea of the different setting and the Brit policeman, so I might look it out. Thanks, very interesting review.

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Interesting point about the translations. Most of my Maigrets are crumbly old green Penguins, and so I’m wondering very much about the sparkly new versions that are coming out…. I don’t know if my bank balance or my bookshelves could stand it, though….. :)

  6. robert says:

    I used to watch Jean Richard version when I was a kid, and really enjoyed it. He is the only one who played all the Maigret books, which is quite an achievement. And the very nice and moving little music that went with the tv series is still on my mind, 30 years later. In fact Simenon didn’t hate it at all… On the contrary. He backed J. Richard for the part because beside being an actor, Richard was also the owner of a circus and an animal tamer. Simenon told him Maigret was acting like a lion tamer in front of an animal he was not familiar with, turning around, trying to understand the beast, being careful and slow..
    So when the tv producer C. Barma said he was to start (at last) a Maigret show, Simenon remembers his son had told him: if Maigret is adapted for tv, J. Richard should be the one. He is like Maigret.
    Simenon absolutely wanted an actor that would not imitate J. Gabin because he thought J. Gabin, being so famous, could only “play” Maigret, while he wanted an actor that would “be” Maigret.
    B Cremer gave a new start to the series, and it is more popular today partly because the series is more recent (1991), and I can add that the music is momre “oppressive” thanvhe one of J. Richard show. I enjoyed Cremer in the title role, too. He was a very good actor, and strangely, I would say Maigret overshadowed quite strongly the rest of his career. But after all P. Falk never complained being primarily known for Colombo, on the contrary :)

    • Thanks for all the great feedback Robert – as for Simenon and Richard, I was relying on this Simenon quote from the mighty Maigret site here:
      “Jean Richard may be Maigret for a lot of French people because of all those television films, but for me he is quite honestly the worst. He is very bad. He acts as if he has seen too many American films with gangsters and gigolos. He will arrive at an old lady’s or wherever wearing his hat and not take it off. He doesn’t say ‘Good-morning’ but just ‘Commissaire Maigret’. He goes on smoking and keeps his hat on all the time he’s there – and he leaves in the same way. That shocked me. A Divisional Commissaire does have a certain amount of education. He knows that you don’t visit people with your hat on and smoking a pipe.”

      • robert says:

        Funny, I had never read this. Well, let’s say that Simenon said so many things and the opposite depending who he was talking to… :)
        In that case he had to endure J. Richard for more than 20 years in the title role :)
        Honestly J. R. made a good job.
        You know, in french, a bad film is called a “turnip”, and J. Richard was playing in many of these “turnips” because he was always looking for money in order to keep his Circus going on. So it was often said that J. Richard was the only tamer who was feeding his lions with vegetables :)

        • I guess they would have preferred turkeys! As you say, he got so identified with the role after nearly a quarter of a century that perhaps that too had an effect on Simenon! I really wish the Richard episodes were available on DVD with English subtitles though … :)

  7. davidsimmons6 says:

    Thanks for the excellent extended review. The interplay between Maigret and Pyke makes this story unique. I haven’t encountered a similar juxtaposition in the series yet.

  8. I read this book year’s ago. Penguin Books is reissuing all the Maigrets with new translations. This is something I’ll keep a close eye on.

  9. justjack says:

    It will be a while before I get to this volume, Sergio, as I’m reading them in order, and I’m still in the early 30’s. Just last week I finished “Maigret And The Flemish Shop,” and in truth it was the first Simenon that I actively disliked. I know that Maigret isn’t a Poirot, sifting clues and reconstructing the crime. But still, don’t you have to have SOME kind of evidence leading you to the killer? I swear that there wasn’t even one clue. Maigreat merely looked around the shop, and at the end of the book simply picked the killer out. Psychological? More like ESP. I will definitely continue with the series, as up til now I *have* enjoyed them very much, but Flemish Shop was a disappointment. I suppose it had to happen, given the way Simenon cranked them out. Used he to not spend enough time on some stories.

    • Very interesting Jack – I haven’t read that one but it is a fine line with how far you are prepared to let ‘intuition’ determine a detective story – I would love to be able to go back and go through them all chronologically (in the early 30s he published 18 Maigret books O think and they were coming out at a rate of one a month!) I think I have it on the shelves (in Italian) – I’ll have a look, thanks chum.

    • curtis evans says:

      That’s very true about this one, it makes an interesting contrast with Maigret in Holland, where there is some material element.

  10. Richard says:

    I have about 60 Maigret volumes, but this is not among them. Perhaps when I finish reading those – so far I’ve read about 20 – I’ll try this.

  11. Kelly says:

    Is there a stand-alone Simenon you recommend? I’ve always wanted to read him, but not sure I want to embark on the Maigret series just yet (I tend to become obsessive, and I don’t have time for it).

    • Ah, well, le roman durs – great places to start would have to include Dirty Snow (1948), Monsieur Monde Vanishes (1945) and certainly The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1938) – all fairly easy to get hold of and very typical of his non-series output at its best I would say.

    • robert says:

      I would add “l’aine des Ferchaux”, “les inconnus dans la maison” ou “En cas de Malheur”, three good novels that were made into very good films. Les “fantomes du Chapelier”, excellent novel and even better film with a Serrault and a Aznavour at their height, and “les Fiancailles de Mr Hire”.

      • I think I’ll provide some English-frienedly notes to your comments Robert, if that is OK:
        1. “Les Fiancailles de Mr Hire” has been filmed twice, most notable as Monsieur Hire (1989) by Patrice Lecompte
        2. “Les fantomes du Chapelier” is the 1982 film by Claude Chabrol known in English as The Hatter’s Ghost (from the novel “Le Petit Tailleur et le Chapelier”)
        3. “L’aine des Ferchaux” was filmed by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1962 and known in English as Magnet of Doom.
        4. “Les inconnus dans la maison” was filmed with Raimu in 1942 and is known in English as The Strangers in the House
        5. “En cas de Malheur” was filmed in 1958 by Claude Autant-Lara and is known in English as In Case of Adversity

        I would also add Tavernier’s 1974 film, The Clockmaker of St. Paul (from the novel “L’Horloger d’Everton”).

        • robert says:

          I have seen all these films and really like all of them. All made by very competent film makers with many of the best French actors. Mr Hire was the first (and probably the only) time that Michel Blanc was playing a dark character (in France he is well known a one of the Splendid crew, a very famous comic group.) Belmondo played in front of C Vanel in “l’Aine des ferchaux” while Raimu, not known outside of France, but one of the most respected actor before WWII, indeed played a very “funny” lawyer coming back to “life”. Belmondo played the same part in a remake. “en cas de malheur” was the first time I was seeing Bardot nude, and I wonder how Gabin was feeling looking at her in this scene… :)
          the Clockmaker and the Hatter’s ghost are really great ones. the couple Rochefort/Noiret at their best, and Serrault(just after Garde a vue)/Aznavour. Yes, these were good.

          • Sorry to say I haven’t seen many of these but I still remember being really impressed by Blanc and Bonnaire in Hire. I think “En cas de malheur” has been remade many, many times – sadly I have yet to see the Raimu version, which I would love to be able to do.

  12. Yvette says:

    I’ve read a bunch of Maigret stories in the past ten or so years – had never read him before. Go figure. But if you ask me to list the titles and plots, I couldn’t do it. I’ll just say that what I read I enjoyed enormously and I wouldn’t turn down a chance to read more. I love the rhythm of Maigret and his wife – the marriage. So comfortable.

    Thanks for this review, Sergio. This is one I haven’t read – that much I know. I’ll keep a look-out. It’s amazing how I’d always thought I wouldn’t like Maigret, and yet I liked them immediately. Better late than never.

    • Thanks Yvette, hope you like this one as much as I did. Yes, I know what you mean, there are maybe half a dozen plots from the books I can recall but they tend to run together otherwise – but I love the tone and atmosphere more than anything.

  13. This looks splendid. I’ve requested a copy. Thanks for the review.

  14. Not much of a Maigret fan, Sergio, not having read any of the books or seen the films yet. Thanks for the review. In fact, reviews of Simenon’s novels, such as yours, have been my only source of knowledge about this fine writer.

  15. TracyK says:

    Simenon is another author I read years ago but don’t remember any of them, except for The Accomplices, which I have never forgotten. I have some to read now. Thanks for this recommendation. I have read that all of Simenon’s books are worth reading, but I know some are better than others.

    • Thanks TracyK, I’ve never read a book by him that I didn’t think was worthwhile – but there are plenty I have not got round to yet! I’m pretty sure I’ve not read The Accomplices, so will seek that one out.

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