Keeping Some Streets Dark in the City of Light
Georges Simenon kept his story lines simple, often using no more than a 2,000-word vocabulary and economical descriptions, keeping his stories brief to appeal to a broader audience. But deeper themes and insights into human psychology lie at the core of his characters. No penny dreadful, each Maigret novel is a quick read but makes a major impact. You can pick one up, read it, and walk away with a deeper understanding of the human psyche. His characters—from the crew at the Prefecture, investigators, and flics on their daily beat to the victims’ neighbors, hotel concierges, and even Paris itself—really speak to readers.
With countless television adaptations of Simenon’s work in the UK, France, and other parts of Europe, everyone knows of the pipe-smoking Maigret. These novels capture a time, a part of Paris that exists now only in the imagination. It was a time when cell phones and numeric-entry keypads were unheard of—one could only ring the concierge’s bell to gain entry after midnight. Everyone knew everyone else’s business in a city with enclosed courtyards, high walls, and watchful eyes. Parisians smoked and drank morning, noon, and night. Men’s wool overcoats and hats steamed as they came in from a wet winter evening to a warm, charcoal-stove-burning café. People knew their neighbors. Snitches snitched. Girlfriends chatted with each other and mother-in-laws complained—human connections abound, often forming a web of lies and deceit. But Maigret keeps at it—plodding, questioning, then throwing out those questions, lighting his pipe when it goes out, and the suspect in the chair opposite him knows it’s only a matter of time. As does Maigret. He drinks at lunch, sometimes he gets angry, even orders sandwiches and beer in the afternoon. He takes the annual August vacances with Madame Maigret unless a case comes up—but when doesn’t it?—and detains him in hot, deserted Paris. But a few of his investigations find him out in the countryside, in those small, hermetically sealed villages where observant eyes don’t miss a thing.
I confess that when I first began writing my Aimée Leduc novels, I would think, Okay. There’s a murder, a staircase dripping with blood…. What would Inspector Maigret do? That wasn’t always much help, since Aimée is a PI, not a policewoman. But then I’d consider what she might do if Maigret appeared on the scene and questioned her after she had found the body. That worked a little better. Of course, the police system in place now is different: Jules Maigret, as the head Commissaire, would certainly not respond in person. Today, it would be the Brigade Criminelle and le procureur (the equivalent of our DA) who would hotfoot it to the scene and dictate the next steps in the investigation. I had to change my way of thinking about police process in a murder investigation, my flic friends told me. The way Maigret operated didn’t make for a plausible scenario now. So I relearned in order to keep the details in my books accurate, and came to the conclusion that Maigret had it easier than a head Commissaire would today.
Is Simenon’s work dated? Historical? Timeless? I’d argue the second two. I personally like my Paris streets dark and narrow, with glistening cobblestones, the air thick with mist and suspicion. The Montmartre cemetery wall the same as it was then, hulking with old, lichen-covered stone; I’ve imagined a corpse there more than once. Returning late at night from the last Métro, walking uphill from Place de Clichy, the cinéma marquees dark, the café lights fading as I cross over the cemetery, I hear the thrum of the old Citroën or Renault engine, the shift of gears, and smell the cherry tobacco. (I like to think he smoked cherry tobacco, though I don’t know that it’s ever specified; perhaps there’s a Simenon scholar out there who can tell me.) Flashlights illuminate the corpse sprawled on the damp pavement. Maigret nods to his lieutenant and says, “Take this down," and we’re off on an investigation. An investigation that leads to the hidden life behind the walls, intrigue in the quartier, and worlds we’d never visit otherwise.
Cara Black is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 14 books in the Private Investigator Aimée Leduc series, which is set in Paris. Cara has received multiple nominations for the Anthony and Macavity Awards, a Washington Post Book World Book of the Year citation, the Médaille de la Ville de Paris—the Paris City Medal, which is awarded in recognition of contribution to international culture—and invitations to be the Guest of Honor at conferences such as the Paris Polar Crime Festival and Left Coast Crime. With more than 400,000 books in print, the Aimée Leduc series has been translated into German, Norwegian, Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew.
This “Writers on Reading” essay was originally published in “At the Scene” eNews March 2015 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.