Fictional French detective Maigret very similar to creator Georges Simenon | Books | Entertainment


Rowan Atkinson as Maigret (Picture: ITV)

When Rowan Atkinson took on the role of legendary pipe-smoking French detective Jules Maigret for television, he claimed part of the attraction was playing a “very ordinary man”. Compared to outlandish characters such as Mr Bean and Edmund Blackadder, the brilliant sleuth may have seemed quite normal. In fact, there’s very little ordinary about the combination of sharp detective-like attack and seedy glamor of 1950s Paris. It has proven irresistible to readers, viewers and actors for 90 years.

Nor was there anything ordinary about Maigret’s creator, Georges Simenon, whose complex character is still intrigued today even as his fictional Parisian commissioner experiences renewed interest.

Atkinson, a big fan of the Belgian author, was eager to join Michael Gambon, Richard Harris, Rupert Davies and Charles Laughton on the list of actors who have played Maigret, and it’s no wonder since more than 500 million pounds of Maigret have been sold since the first, Pietr le Latvian, was published in 1931.

Maigret may have been Simenon’s greatest literary creation, but the pensive and brilliant detective seemed to be about as different from his creator as possible.

While Maigret was married, monogamous, burly, and relentless, Simenon was lighthearted, wiry, controversial, and once claimed to have slept with some 10,000 women.

And yet his son John, who inherited control of the literary realm after his father’s death in 1989, at the age of 86, has little time for the conventional view that Maigret was everything his father was not.

“My father and Maigret were twins, he insists, although they didn’t look alike inside, my father was definitely very close to Maigret. They understood each other without having to talk to each other.

“Like twins, they may have different qualities, but they share the same outlook on life and the same outlook on people.”

Georges Simenon smoking

Just like Maigret, the designer Georges Simenon loved his pipes (Image: Getty)

Playground Entertainment, the television giant behind Wolf Hall and Howards End, has just signed an agreement to bring Maigret back to our screens. A limited-edition DVD reissue of the BBC’s first major classic television adaptation from the early 1960s sold out immediately.

It will be available again in October. Penguin, meanwhile, has republished the novels with modern translations, and a new collection of short stories, Death Threats, which contains tales never before translated into English, is released September 2.

The enduring success of Maigret’s books is due to the fact that they were driven by complex characters rather than plot.

John Simenon believes his father was one of the first mystery writers to do so and set a pattern that many would follow.

“I think audiences are increasingly drawn to stories that are about characters, even if they’re detective stories or thrillers, but they’re driven by character rather than plot,” he said.

“My father’s later Maigret books, well, there’s hardly any plot. It’s just a man meandering through life, through characters, and thinking about those characters.”

Many of the people we see through Maigret’s eyes are deeply flawed, trapped by their own weaknesses. Like Simenon himself, perhaps?

John believes that his father did not accept the concept of “free will” and was instead convinced that our behavior is dictated by “biology”, or what we now call DNA.

This is why, says John, neither the author nor his creation passed judgment on his neighbour. “How can you judge, how can you pass moral judgment on people, if their behavior depends so much on biology?

“We are all capable of being good and bad at the same time. In many modern detective novels, we see the bad guy as the embodiment of pure evil. This concept is very foreign to my father,” he says.

“It’s just the circumstances, you know, that will create a situation where we might find ourselves going one way or the other. Fortunately, culture and society are there to try to keep us from going the wrong way. meaning and they succeed most of the time.”

Cynics might be tempted to think that this “biological” position was a convenient excuse for Simenon’s hectic sex life.

Simenon family

Simenon with Denyse and the children John and Marie-Jo (Image: Getty)

Born in 1903 in Liège, Georges Simenon had a conventional but suffocating education, between an insurance agent father and a mother with whom he had a tortured relationship that marked his life and his literature.

After a brief stint as a local journalist, he turned to fiction, producing hundreds of books and short stories before striking gold with the creation of Jules Maigret in 1929.

Living in France during the war, Simenon kept a low profile. Following the German defeat, the author was dogged by allegations of collaboration and later moved to the United States with his first wife, Régine, whom he had married in 1923, and their son Marc.

The marriage did not last. The author fell in love with his secretary, French-Canadian Denyse Ouimet, and they had two sons, including John, and a daughter Marie-Jo.

After obtaining a divorce from Régine, Georges and Denyse finally married and the two families returned to Europe around 1955.

The move would not save the second marriage. Denyse will end up writing a book of her own, translated as “A bird for the cat”, because she accuses Simenon of treating her as his prey.

Simenon, by most accounts, moved on to a woman called Teresa who would remain his companion until his death, in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Rupert Davies

Rupert Davies played the title role in the 1960s TV series Maigret (Image: Getty)

The author suffered even more heartache when his beloved daughter Marie-Jo committed suicide, aged 25, in 1978 while being treated in a psychiatric clinic.

The death would later be the subject of a play, Murder In Paris, which explored Marie-Jo’s apparent infatuation with her famous father.

Simenon admitted that: “You never get over the loss of a girl you cherish. It leaves a void that nothing can fill.”

But his son John rejects the idea that his father led an unconventional personal life or that his sister paid the price.

“There was an angry separation between my father and my mother, but it was nothing extraordinary or outrageous,” he explains.

“Marie-Jo was a young, young girl. So I think that can explain a lot of things. It’s common knowledge that my mother was completely understandable mentally. And those things evolve. They can evolve positively and negatively .

“In my mother’s case, it was negative. I think that explains why my sister suffered.”

John thinks his father had a close and loving relationship with his own father, but not with his mother.

“He had love for his father, which was fully returned to him, and the other was love for his mother, who was, he felt, rejected. My grandmother was not a villain no one but they didn’t understand each other,” says John.

He witnessed this first hand when his grandmother Henriette visited Georges Simenon in Switzerland. “Out of pride, she could never accept what he could give her as proof of love. When he sent her money, for example. She gave him back all the money,” says John.

“If you’re a son…and it’s something your mother does to you, you feel deeply hurt.”

    John Simon

Jean Simenon, son of Georges Simenon (Image: Christiane Oelrich/PA)

However, John does not believe that his father’s difficult relationship with his mother explains his seemingly confrontational approach to women.

“His emotional life was very stable,” he insists. “Four women were important in his life. They never overlapped. Separately, there was a sexual need that he satisfied and that was allowed at the time.”

As a new generation discovers Maigret, it is clear that John Simenon, now 71, still accepts his parents’ legacy.

He says, “We were brought up to make our own decisions. But I also realized that there were circumstances where if I wasn’t careful, I could find myself in a situation that I couldn’t control: where you get caught up in anger. You can completely lose control.

“I would like to have a discussion with my father about this, because I feel that my decisions are not far from those he would have taken in the same situation.

“You know, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Maigret: The Complete Series is reissued on Blu-ray and DVD on October 25. Death Threats and Other Stories by George Simenon is published by Penguin on September 2.


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