Sunday, 12 January 2014

Penguin no. 1594: Maigret's First Case
by Simenon

At ten to nine, Madame Maigret, fresh and smiling, smelling of toilet soap, opened the bedroom curtains, letting in the bright sunlight. She had not yet been married very long and she was still not used to seeing a man asleep, the tips of his reddish moustache quivering, his forehead creasing when a fly landed on it, his thick hair all over the place. She laughed. She always laughed when she came to him in the mornings, a cup of coffee in her hand, and when he looked at her, his eyes vague and a little childlike.

There were so many Simenon titles published as vintage Penguins that I could sustain this blog for two-thirds of the year, if I owned them all, writing of nothing but Maigret, and well beyond a year writing only of Simenon. This is now my third Maigret in a row and I've found that reading them one after the other has its rewards, each one adding a few more details to his story and providing further insights into his way of thinking. He can seem almost a different man when consecutively-read stories are sampled from different periods of his life, reflective in some, listless in others, but with his enthusiasm for drinking calvados and his nagging dissatisfactions seemingly consistent through time.

We are introduced to yet another Jules Maigret in Maigret's First Case. He is young here, and while his behaviour may generally appear to be calm and controlled, his thinking can be erratic, and it is only with difficultly that he keeps his often intemperate emotions under control. He feels every setback intensely, and so each apparent waver in the level of his chief's support, every potential obstruction to his plans, and each of the many humiliations he must suffer as someone with ambition but little importance has him composing letters of resignation in his head. But then, as he begins to calm down, he will start making plans for how things will change in the future, when he is the one in control.

In telling the story of Maigret's earliest case, Simenon takes it for granted that his readers are aware of the subsequent progress of his career. But the young Maigret cannot know his future and so we see him portrayed as ambitious but apprehensive; uncertain about showing initiative, unsure about how to gain the confidence of strangers, and yet always reflective and intent on drawing lessons from each setback that he suffers.

It is 1913, and Maigret is 26 and recently married, and living with Madame Maigret in the same apartment on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir in which he will remain until he retires. It is four years since he had joined the police force, after the death of his father had meant that he must abandon his medical studies. Those years had been spent working in all the lowliest positions the police service offers, gradually gaining experience. For the past year he has been the secretary to Monsieur Le Bret at the Saint-Georges Police Station in the Rue La Rochefoucald, accompanying him on his raids, but never conducting an investigation of his own. But it is this that he longs for, as he has his sights on a position at the Sûréte and he is determined to get there by earning his place.

The young Maigret is keen and conscientious, and it shows. He can quote whole passages from the handbooks which have been written to guide aspiring detectives, and Simenon describes him as having a 'head full of the latest theories about finding clues'. His opportunity comes one evening when the visit of a foreign monarch means that many of the police are employed elsewhere, guarding against the threats posed by anarchists.

A musician walking home along the Rue Chaptal in the early hours of the morning sees a panic-stricken woman call for help from an upstairs window; moments later he hears a gun shot. He tries to go to her assistance, pushing past the man who opens the door upon his frantic knocking, but he finds himself roughly ejected from the premises. Undeterred, he heads for the nearest police station and urges Maigret to return with him and find out what has taken place. Maigret knows the address: it is the residence of the well-connected family who own the coffee business House of Balthazar, and he is aware there may be repercussions from knocking upon their door in the middle of the night.

Unusually for a Simenon novel, I found it difficult to follow who was related to whom in the Grendreau-Balthazar family, and I had to read through some of the sections twice until it became clear. The family may be wealthy, but they are only two generations removed from the pedlar who left his village to begin the business and so far any entrepreneurial flair has been passed down through the daughters; in each generation the family assets have needed protection from profligate sons and husbands. Maigret must first find out if a crime has been committed.

The crime itself seems of little importance in the novel, except in the way it serves to illustrate just how the social order has changed in Paris during the intervening years. The real story is the change in Maigret, from eager note-taking junior police officer hampered by his youthful appearance and lack of experience, to chief of the special squad at the renamed Police Headquarters. And it is about why he changed, and how he learnt to trust his own ideas and his own methods of problem-solving. In this case it is not the thinking of the criminals which he must intuit, but that of his superintendent and of those in charge at the Sûréte.

La Première Enquête de Maigret first published in 1953. This translation (by Robert Brain) first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1958. Published in Penguin Books 1961.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1222: Maigret's Mistake
Penguin no. 1419: My Friend Maigret
Penguin no. 1680: Maigret Has Scruples
Penguin no. 1854: The Little Man from Archangel
Penguin no. 2024: Maigret Mystified
Penguin no. 2251: Maigret in Court
Penguin no. 2253: The Widower
Penguin no. 2590: The Iron Staircase


  1. How interesting to meet Maigret at the start of his career, and to see how he evolved over the years.

  2. Your comments about the progression of new details and insights plus the interplay of consistent and different features in the works you have read so far resonates with me. Simenon fills out Maigret and his other main characters over time in a way that they remain the same on the surface but grow increasingly complex inside. This is what gradually lured me into reading the series (and eventually writing an interpretive pastiche.) Thanks!



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