I quite literally discovered Maigret by stumbling over him. Let me explain: for a couple of semesters my wife and I led two separate groups of university students though a study-abroad program in Europe. Our base of operations was in a small town in Belgium. For our first full day on the continent we'd day-trip to the city of Liege where they held festivities for the holiday of Assumption. A very Catholic town, they went all out for the holiday including food that filled the streets, beer that flowed like gushing rivers, music on every street corner, and a huge parade that wandered the street and was filled with these enormous wooden puppets. After some orientating, we set the students free with a command that we all meet back at the train later that evening. My wife and I then proceeded to enjoy the festivities. We rounded a corner and ran smack into a group of oncoming puppets. Scurrying to get out of their way, I tripped on the curb and fell right on top of a little plaque embedded in the sidewalk. It read simply "Simenon" and contained a small feathery flourish.
"Ah!" my wife exclaimed. "I had forgotten he was born here." "Who?" I asked. "Georges Simenon," she said as if everyone in the world knew who he was. "And who is he?" I asked, nonplussed. "He wrote the Maigret novels," came the reply.
Again, having no idea what she was talking about, I inquired as to what those were. She informed me that he was a very famous and popular French detective. Being a fan of the genre, I tucked the name into my mental files for later use. Except I never really pulled them back out again. Oh I looked a bit for him when we returned to the States, but while Maigret remains quite popular in Europe, he doesn't seem to have made that much of an impression here in the States. His books aren't those that are readily available in the local Barnes and Nobles and while you can find English translations on Amazon and the like you have to do some looking and I never quite got around to bothering with it. My wife, being quite the Francophile and being fluent in French has quite enjoyed the books and so it was with some joy that I discovered the BBC series was being released on DVD by Acorn Media.
The series aired on the BBC and PBS stations in the mid 1990s for two seasons. Each season contains six slightly-less-than-60-minute episodes. Each episode is completely self contained with no season or series arcs nor much real character development. One could easily watch any episode from either season without having seen anything previous and not get lost at all.
Maigret falls in line with the superior detectives of the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Much like those detectives Maigret always gets his man (or woman as the case may be) and has become quite famous in his homeland for solving the big-named cases. Where Maigret differs from those other crime fighters is that he relies more on regular police work to solve his cases than on some sort of super-human abilities. Sherlock Holmes is well known for his God-like powers of deduction and Poirot usually retires to his quarters only to come out some time later having solved the case with only the help of his little gray cells. Maigret is certainly intelligent and an excellent investigator but he finds his solutions with more human abilities. He calls upon his staff to hunt up clues, follow suspects, and digs into the paper trails. He regularly gets forensics to discover fingerprints, match bullet casing etc. Meanwhile, Maigret himself pounds the pavement, talking to suspects and witnesses alike using his great insight and powerful interviewing skills to crack the case.
Perhaps the greatest attribute of the character is not his ability to solve the mystery, but to show empathy towards not only victims but scoundrels as well. Whereas in so many crime dramas the cops show nothing but anger and hatred towards those they are chasing, Maigret tries to understand their circumstances and often shows them great kindness. In the first episode of the series we find him chatting with a gangster whom he has tried to convict for many years but always failed. The two seem like old friends and in fact later when the gangster is murdered Maigret mourns him and expresses great sadness over his loss. Certainly he would have put the man behind bars for the crimes he committed but likewise he understands the humanity underneath the criminal. In other episodes he allows a certain sympathy and graciousness for those usually cast off by society. In this we too feel for those people and learn to easily love Maigret for it.
Michael Gambon plays the great detective to perfection. His large presence fills the screen and he owns every scene he is in (which is almost all of them.) He is capable of grand gestures and small, more subtle moments. The scripts rarely clue us into how Maigret is feeling, but with a simply look or an expression Gambon is able let us see his anger or sympathy that lies just underneath the cool exterior. The rest of the regular cast, including those who play his three associates and ever-doting wife, are all excellent as well. I was especially fond of Geoffrey Hutchings, who played Sgt. Lucas as a more than capable investigator, but one who has obviously been on the job for far too long. His cynicism and wit brought a light touch to what was often very dark moments.
Maigret does nothing new; it breaks no fresh ground. Like many series in the genre, each episode starts with a crime happening and then follows with the investigation for the rest of the show until finally the culprit is brought to justice by the end. The joy of watching it is not so much in figuring out the mystery (though certainly that's fun too) but in seeing how Maigret and his associates will react to each new situation they are put in. It is not a show that will ever be lauded as the greatest show of this or any century, but for what it is, it does it very well. There is something to be said about a show that simply does what you expect it to do, and does it with great satisfaction.
The DVD set includes a booklet with essays on the life of Semenon and Maigret as a character.
Episodes in the set include:
The Patience of Maigret: Convinced that an old nemesis is behind a series of bank robberies, Maigret searches for evidence at his flat and talks about old times. When the nemesis is murdered, Maigret mourns his sworn enemy and solves the case.
Maigret and the Burglar's Wife: When a burglar breaks into a home, he finds not jewels but a a dead body. The burglar's wife turns to Maigret for help as the police already suspect her husband, and Maigret knew them both many years before.
Maigret Goes to School: Maigret visits the countryside when a headmistress is murdered in a small town outside of Paris.
Maigret and the Mad Woman: Maigret dismisses an elderly woman as a lunatic but regrets it when she turns up dead hours later.
Maigret on Home Ground: Maigret receives an anonymous note that a crime will be committed in his hometown village at a particular time and place. When the countess who worked for his father suddenly plops over dead of a heart attack at that exact time and place, Maigret suspects foul play.
Maigret Sets a Trap: A serial killer is murdering women in Montmatre. Maigret uses one of his policewomen to set a trap for him, but things don't go as he hoped.
Maigret and the Night Club Dancer: A young Minnie Driver plays a strip teaser who overhears two clients talking about a murder they are about to commit. When she winds up dead, Maigret must solve both murders.
Maigret and the Hotel Majestic: When the beautiful wife of an American businessman is found dead inside a kitchen locker of the posh Hotel Majestic, Maigret is put on the case.
Maigret on the Defensive: Maigret is taken off duty due to complaints about sexual misconduct.
Maigret's Boyhood Friend: An old acquaintance of Maigret enlists the detective into helping him solve the murder of his lover.
Maigret and the Minister: After the collapse of a sanitarium which kills 62 people, many of which are children, Maigret is asked to investigate discretely by the Minister of Public Works over a paper written years earlier which predicted the collapse.
Maigret and the Maid: Probably the best of the lot with a wonderful performance by Susie Lindeman as a very strange Felice who does everything she can to stop Maigret from determining the murderer of Peg Leg who died in the same house as Felice.