My Fictional Man, Inspector Jules Maigret
“May I smoke?” he’ll gently ask the well-rouged set of cheekbones in the hallway. She’ll shoot him a mysterious look, pinch her shoulders forward and shrug in a defiantly non-committal way. The pipe he so continually sucks on functions as the nipple of thought, an inspiration for his deductive processes or at least a conversation starter. When Commissaire Maigret sets to work, he yearns for a smoke. Yet, being a consummate interpreter of behavior, our hero, or at least my hero, will understand her disdain for the pipe. Even as he raises his eyebrows to mourn this unenlightened attitude, his eyes remain soft. He eschews the tobacco pouch, the matches, massages the pipe in his hand and then returns it to his mouth. As his interviewee offers him a brandy and manufactures awkward small talk, he chews on his unlit pipe, nods and almost smiles. He is learning, and learning seems to be the bedrock of his interview technique.
Every Tuesday night at 9 PM on MHZ, the ‘International Mystery’ channel, he appears to me in the form of the late great actor Bruno Cremer. He has a nose worthy of a Roman emperor. Blue is his best color, often presented in the form of a V-neck sweater vest and deployed to augment the light of his heavy-lidded blue eyes. Overcoats seem to be a requirement in every season and emphasize, rather than deny, his soft-fleshed pulchritude. Aside from his height (Cremer was well over 6 feet), there is nothing to distinguish him from an ordinary Frenchman of a certain age.
In every episode, he accepts a drink, welcomes a good beer in a pub or a sip of cognac at the chateau with the same measured delight. Though he may deplore the acts of certain men and can cold-cock a fleeing assailant with the best of them, he clearly relishes the company of others. One of my favorite episodes takes place almost entirely in a café-a-la-Brassaï complete with lawyers, lotharios, professors, naïfs and bon vivants, all shot in warm sepia tones and staged from Maigret’s point of view—slightly higher. Everyone looks gloriously guilty of something. Yet, the plot, i. e., Maigret’s thought process, suggests no rush to judgment. Like a good Bordeaux, the Commissaire’s decency and keen sensibility exert themselves over time.
His job is to avenge the sins the living have perpetrated upon the dead. But Maigret is a tender-hearted man, a man who expends his authority as medicine and treads gently on the lives of others.
Before I fell in love with the French television series of the 1990s, Jules Maigret was nothing more than the protagonist in a short story by Georges Simenon (1919–1989). After the character’s much-lauded debut, Simenon proceeded to employ him in seventy-five novels and twenty-eight short stories from 1931 to 1972. Maigret problem-solved his way through the approach to the Second World War, managed the emotional repercussions of its conclusion and aftermath, and then in the early 1960s went on to international fame via movies, television and radio. The Japanese and the Italians loved him. In England, he earned two different incarnations: Rupert Davies and then the superb Michael Gambon. The author confessed his favorite Commissaire Maigret was an Italian, Gino Cervi. In Simenon’s home country—the author was born in Belgium but seems to have cast his lot with the French and with Paris since his family’s move there in 1922—Maigret has been on air and in print for so long he is essentially family.
I do not love him because he is French and lives in a mythical Paris from another century. Really I don’t.
Much as I adore Chanel, Dior, any Parisian-designed shoe, bonbons, the Grand Palais, the Louvre, the Seine, the walk around the Seine, all those delicate brass handles on all those tall wooden doors leading away from the rose velvet and mahogany sitting rooms in most every episode of Maigret, the shade of red blooming on the mouth of virtually every woman who saunters towards the Metro even on Sunday, the rain rain rain, those ridiculous split-lipped petals of red and yellow French tulips in April, and the sense wherever you look that beauty in one form or another, eternally matters, oh no, I am not so easily seduced. Some of this detail is innate to the Maigret story lines. After all, Paris is his ‘precinct’ and he is her Commissaire, the chief of her Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris. He must be fluent in her ways in order to attend to the challenges she presents. Even in retirement, he retains his apartment on the Place des Vosges in the 4th arrondissement. Naturally.
But I do not love him because of my romance with a myth called Paris. I love him because of my father.
My father is an English teacher by trade and a Southern gentleman unto his very bones. Though he is now retired and thus no longer issuing grades, the paucity of As he dispensed during his career remains the stuff of legend. I remember the short grunts and sighs, the piffling sounds, variations on ‘tsk tsk,’ that used to accompany his grading sessions at the dining room table. The overhead light streamed towards the center of the table and he leaned into the student papers spread open before him. In between the furious writing of his comments, he would flick his wrist back and forth in rapid succession, pen in hand, as if practicing to serve a miniature tennis ball. It was so fraught with intent I was almost frightened. Though I knew his cause was high-minded and worthy (he was a teacher!), I could see that he suffered. To this day, his handwriting, though baroque in its curvature, is fiercely regulated in scale and produced with such intensity that entire pages can be read on the blank page beneath. I never dared disturb him while he attempted to grade papers and was shy about letting him read anything I wrote. Though I am slightly braver these days, his discernment and admiration for the superior written word haunt my writing life.
As he was ever situated with a book, always reading, always talking about what he read or quoting someone whose writing he admired, it was clear that literature, whether the L was capital or lower case, mattered big time. If bad grammar assaulted sense and murdered sensibility in student papers, it would be hunted down. Any trend towards uninformed or willful illiteracy or thoughtlessness had to be thwarted whenever possible. In his classroom, in his home, my father was the Commissaire of the literary police force. Like Maigret, he displayed no affect in his professional manner other than genuine engagement with his job and a certain compassion for the struggle to communicate via the written word.
Despite his rigorous standards and his insistence on brightly-colored slacks, he was well liked about campus and certainly beloved at home. Though his professional life had none of the scandal or intrigue of Maigret’s, my father shares with Maigret a profound civility; a civility not frequently displayed on television and completely nonexistent in greater Los Angeles, where I now live. The longer I am forced to navigate the ways and means of this extraordinary city, the more I begin to believe that Maigret’s civility, my father’s civility, is an attitude of the past.
My father resembles no distant relative of Maigret in look or sound. My affection for the Commissaire is not about looks, all strong chins and biceps. Though I am as most daughters are, subject to waves of complicated emotion with regard to my father, I am no longer a schoolgirl. The fictions of childhood have given way to a cooler assessment of the facts. Maigret’s actions—and I must confess something in his general decorum as well—assure me that he and my father embody kindred values. The Maigret I watch on Tuesdays at 9 PM suggests that my father’s moral compass, my father’s rigorous decency, is not a fiction. It exists and will continue to exist in some form even after his death.
Thus imagine my pleasure, after my regularly-scheduled visit with my father, when Maigret begins his investigation. In the Commissaire’s office, the phone rings with the insistence of an angry woodpecker. Were it not for the telephone, a man could dream, grade papers or sip espresso while stationed at his thick-legged wooden desk. Maigret lets his eyes pan evenly towards the phone. In my mind’s eye, I see my father purse his lips at the sound. I know he would answer the call day or night. Onscreen, the light falling from the outside windows suggests it is dusk. I can sense Maigret calculating the time and realizing he may not make it home for dinner tonight. His wife will dine alone. He sighs. Such is life and she who shares his life must understand his vocation.
I once had an extended debate with my father as to why Gilgamesh, who seemed to have a perfectly good wife, felt he had no one to talk to until Enkidu arrived on the scene. “Why didn’t he talk to his wife?” I kept repeating. “You talk to Mother,” I insisted. My father kept replying with assorted restatements of the phrase, “It’s an epic.” “It’s an ancient epic.” “The concerns of the epic are not domestic.” I never bought that answer. What is un-epic about relations between men and women? That said, I was unwilling to embark on a larger discussion. He was driving and I didn’t want to see that little tennis serve get deployed again.
Onscreen, Maigret answers, takes one long slow deep breath, nods and hangs up. There is a briskness in his walk towards the coat rack, and his face has acquired a gravity it did not have moments ago. His work has begun, and it is definitely a murder. My heart leaps as I realize I can look forward to a scene with Maigret explaining the case to Madame Maigret. Soon. Unlike poor Gilgamesh, but like my father, Maigret likes talking to his wife.
The doe-eyed assistant appears. “Would the Commissaire like to be driven?” “No, merci.” He holds up his hand, something my father would do, as if to comfort his employee. Maigret’s pipe goes in his mouth. Much as he appreciates being driven— most episodes include a petite reference to his desire to be chauffeured about the city—he needs to walk. He needs to think, to take in the night air and let the city speak to him.
Cut to the street; a nervous figure darts out from within the dark, cigarette twitching about his mouth. He stumbles. Maigret is immediately by his side, attempting to help him right himself. (Though my father is on a cane now, I can imagine him twenty years ago behaving just like the Commissaire.) His authenticity seems to subdue the frantic young man, who, grateful for the assist, joins Maigret en route to a nearby café. It is Paris in 1955 or so, and that, I guess, is just what they do. Paris’ detective is on the job, listening, ordering a drink—why would anyone ever turn down a little pastis?—and trying to find the reason in unreasonable circumstances.
Through it all, he seems a man at peace with his place in the world. Not the usual suspect at all, this Maigret: a rare breed, a comfort to the general public, a professional who loves his profession and does not suffer for his love, a man worth watching, a man worth waiting all week for. Jules Maigret. Lucky Paris.
My only sorrow is that Maigret the fictional detective never had children. He and his fictional wife lost a fictional daughter in infancy, and some trace of her absence slows his step, especially when he encounters the children of others. When a child volunteers information, as children often do whether you are a detective and want them to or not, he inclines his head towards the child, and his eyes widen as if to smile all by themselves. I do not know if that is Maigret or Bruno Cremer or Bruno Cremer as Maigret. Whoever it is in that triple threat of possible identities, the tenderness is palpable.
I recognize the look. Though the face is not familiar, no need for a detective, I know it well. It reminds me of my father.
Marie Chambers is a Southerner by birth and an Angelino by choice. She received an MFA from the Professional Writing Seminars at Bennington College. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Talking Writing, The Quotable, Atlanta Review and Printer’s Devil Review. She’s the 2014 winner of the Tallahassee Writers Association annual creative nonfiction prize, published in Seven Hills Literary Review (March 2015). Chambers is also a winner of the 2015 ARTlines2 Ekphrastic Poetry Contest.