If the title of this blog rings a bell for you, you must be a fan of the mystery novels of Georges Simenon. When Inspector Maigret holds an interrogation at the Quai des Orfèvres, more often than not he orders beer and sandwiches from the Brasserie Dauphine, not only for the police officers involved, but also for the suspect. Nobody ever goes hungry (or thirsty) in a Maigret novel.
If you are not familiar with the Inspector Maigret mysteries by Simenon, I should back up a bit. The building at 36, Quai des Orfèvres, on the Île de la Cité, was for many years the headquarters of the police in Paris.
It is a real place invoked in Simenon’s novels. Not any more, though. Police headquarters recently relocated to a more modern facility in the 17th.
The Brasserie Dauphine, however, is Simenon’s invention. The Place Dauphine, just around the corner from the Quai des Orfèvres, has always had cafés and restaurants, but today’s fashionable eateries do not look like the kind of place that would send out a tray of sandwiches and beer to the local cop shop.*
I read several Maigret novels recently while recovering from Covid. As one does. On the back of my second-hand copy of Maigret in Exile (translated from the French, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978) is a quotation from The New Yorker:
Georges Simenon has probably done as much for the common cold as the aspirin and more for travel than the overnight suitcase. Limp, semi-recumbent people all over the world wanly open his latest tale…and somehow, no matter what the outcome, close it with a feeling of inexplicable pleasure.
The only thing I would disagree with there is the word “inexplicable.” I think the pleasure of his books is quite explicable.
For me, one doesn’t so much open a Maigret novel as wrap oneself in it, like a comfortable overcoat, perhaps one smelling faintly of pipe smoke. It’s Paris in the 1940s or 1950s, the city of old movies and nostalgia. There are buses with open-air platforms at the back, you need a jeton to make a phone call from a bistro, and eagle-eyed concierges lurk within the entrance to every residence.
Adam Gopnick, writing about Simenon in the New Yorker in September 2022, says that the author “takes gray as his distinct and constant color.” I beg to disagree. Perhaps Gopnick is confusing the books with their publishers’ frequent use of black and white photography on the covers, particularly the old Penguin versions with their lovely typography. Here’s a typical example, taken from my own shelves.**
For me, the books are full of light and colour. Here’s the opening of Maigret and the Headless Corpse, which takes place in (and I do mean in) and around the Canal St-Martin:
The sunlight was beating down on the buildings along Quai de Valmy, sunlight so bright that it made you wonder why that stretch of the canal had such a sinister reputation. True, the paintwork on the fronts of the buildings was faded, the whites and yellows pale and washed out, but on this March morning, everything seemed as bright and clear as a painting by Utrillo. (p. 8)
I immediately thought of that spot on the Quai de Valmy with the colourful facades.
In Maigret Goes to School (1954), it is spring and “bright sunlight as cheerful as lilies-of-the-valley shone on Paris and made the pink chimney pots gleam.” Grey? The books set in winter, perhaps, but I wouldn’t colour all his work in grey.
Food is hugely important. Even junior officers need to eat. Maigret has three lieutenants at his beck and call – Janvier, Lapointe, and Lucas (they probably have first names and distinctive characteristics, but I can’t remember any offhand) – and Maigret wouldn’t dream of sending them to do surveillance or a house-to-house inquiry without ensuring that they have a square meal first. If they are far from the Quai des Orfèvres, he recommends a nearby restaurant.
Madame Maigret provides wonderful meals on the rare occasions Maigret makes it home for lunch or dinner. Here’s an exchange over breakfast from Maigret Hesitates:
“Do you think you’ll be back for lunch?”
“I think so.”
“Would you like fish?”
“Skate in black butter, if you can get any.” (p. 113)
I love that. Other men would simply have said “Yes, fish would be nice.” Alas, later that morning, Maigret finds a body, and Madame Maigret, whose patience is inexhaustible, must have had to eat the skate with black butter alone, if indeed she found any.
In Maigret Goes to School, the Inspector takes an interest in a murder in a small community near the coast simply because he hopes to eat oysters there. Alas, he arrives during the neap tides, when oysters are not available. (Don’t ask me. I have no idea what that means, and neither did Maigret when he was given the news. Apparently during certain kinds of ocean tides, oysters and mussels are not gathered or eaten.)
And the drinking, my dear, the drinking. White wine is for the morning. Just to get going or to obliterate the taste of bad coffee. Then one has a bottle of wine at lunch. Calvados in the late afternoon (well, Calvados any time it’s offered), and no end of libations all evening. There’s a funny scene in Maigret and the Headless Corpse in which Maigret and a provincial lawyer who has a crucial story to tell make a night of it with brandy. The following morning, Maigret wakes up with an unaccustomed headache, and for Maigret, that is saying something.
All of which is to say that what Simenon may have intended as background comes to the fore when I read the novels. The details give me quite explicable pleasure.
The plots are sometimes straightforward whodunnits that start with a body and end with the identity of the murderer, but some are “what-on-earth-is-going-on?” stories that draw you along in puzzlement (in Maigret Hesitates, the murder doesn’t occur until two-thirds of the way through the book). Maigret’s methods would not, of course, pass muster in real-life policing, but that’s the thing about fiction. You can get away with…well, nobody gets away with murder in traditional crime fiction, but detectives get away with the most unorthodox approaches to solving crimes.
None of the novels are more than 200 pages long. A perfect length for someone recuperating from Covid or undertaking a journey. Given the level of compression, the detail is sometimes sketched in, as in this rapid-fire description in Maigret in Exile, when Maigret is at a train station in a rush and needs to send a message.
A brasserie. A fat cashier. A railway timetable. A well-chilled glass of beer. “Could you bring me some writing paper and a ham sandwich… oh, and another beer!” (p. 79)
Imagine calling for writing paper in a modern railway station today. Imagine getting a well-chilled glass of beer.
The unravelling of each mystery involves a back story. The past is always present. The story is often told to Maigret accompanied by generous amounts of drink and, if the speaker is a man, a great deal of tobacco as well. After one long session over port and pipes, “The air was so thick with smoke it was almost impossible to breathe.” (Maigret in Exile, p. 77)
The stories are of affairs, betrayals, losses, estrangements, buried secrets, thwarted ambitions, and a range of passions. Sometimes the perpetrator is a sad soul more sinned against than sinning; sometimes he or she is a respected member of society who conceals a dreadful secret behind an appealing façade.
But the stories always end at the point at which Maigret knows who did what, how, and why, and hands the case over to the examining magistrate (juge d’instruction). The guilty party may or may not pay his or her debt to society in the end; but that is not Maigret’s (or the reader’s) concern. The point is to understand. What happens in the justice system is another matter entirely.
It’s flu season. I recommend laying in a stock of Vitamin C, chicken soup (or skate with black butter if you can get any), and Simenon novels to get through it all.
Text by Philippa Campsie. Photograph of Canal St-Martin by Philippa Campsie. All other images from Wikimedia Commons. The statue of Maigret is by Pieter d’Hont and stands in a park in Delfzijl in The Netherlands.
*One blogger argues that the inspiration for the Brasserie Dauphine was actually the Café Restaurant Aux Trois Marchés around the corner from the Quai des Orfèvres on the rue de Harlay. It is now gone.
**The crime in this novel takes place in the canal near Epernay, but the photograph is not of the canal at all, although at first glance it seems to be. And it’s not Paris; the roofs are all wrong. I was curious, as always, and took a closer look. After a few hours of hunting, I discovered that it is the Quai Ste-Catherine in Honfleur, at the mouth of the Seine. The houses in the photograph are still there.
I can see it being difficult to harvest oysters during neap tides. Much easier when the tide is low enough to actually expose them!
Thank you for explaining that! Now we know. Aren’t you up awfully late (or early)?
(Ah, but I’m 3 hours behind you…)
I always enjoy Parisian Fields as a way to return to Paris, but I especially enjoyed this one!
Thank you. Maigret is the next best thing to being there!
My late husband, who initially had little French, read Maigrets with a dictionary. After his French became serviceable, he still read the books for the pleasure of the style, and the food and drink.
I have read some of the books in French, but the French versions are harder to find here. Any language will do! Your late husband was probably getting a very good grounding in French from Simenon.
If you want a detective with his mind on food Montalbano can’t be beaten. I never really picked up on the food in Maigret, but the constant hanging out in bars of a certain era did engage me. It is interesting how drinking habits have changed, even in rural France.
I must give Montalbano a try. Mind you, after reading these books, one gets very hungry and tends to overeat!
I’ve been meaning to get some Maigret novels, and will now make a point of it. Thank you for the reminder! As for neap tides, they occur during the 1st and 3rd quarter of the moon, when the moon looks 1/2 full. The sun and the moon are on opposite side of the earth, and this moderates both the high and low tides of the day, so that high tides are a little lower and low tides are a little higher than average. Better to wait for a normal low tide to get your clams, mussels and oysters.
Aha! Something even Maigret didn’t know! Thank you.
Best of the best – nothing is better than Maigret . Thank you for your insight .
Quite right. Maigret fills the Paris-shaped hole in us.
I’m good with all the sandwiches & beer… & wine & calvados too- but the smoke filled rooms are hard to deal with now! Have all the books on my Kindle – ready to read again to soak up that bygone Parisian atmosphere !!
I think of Brasserie Dauphine as La Taverne Henry IV, at the opening of Place Dauphine. The best cinematic rendition of Maigret is the French series starring the great Bruno Cremer. I always look forward to scenes in bars and cafes, to see what Maigret will order.
I plan to order beer and a sandwich at La Taverne Henri IV on our next visit and report back. And I shall look for the Bruno Cremer series online. Thank you for the information.
Cheers! I have the same plan for my next visit to Paris. And I want to thank you for your wonderful blog, through which my friends and I have learned so much about our favorite city.
I’ve received many blogs over the years. Yours is the only one I consistently read.
Speaking of reading. I’m off to download a Maigret audio book, having not read any, and recovering from Covid!!
If Maigret doesn’t complete your recovery, nothing will.
I read those stories long ago, but your post makes me think I should do it again! Hope you’re feeling better.
Thank you so much. We both had it, and Norman and I had completely different symptoms, but we are fully recovered now.
I read those stories long ago, but your post makes me think I should do it again.
Hi Philippa, Thanks for your hearty defence of Maigret. And for proposing his classics when “semi-recumbent.” It hadn’t occurred to me. So sorry to hear you had covid and hope you are now entirely clear of it.
If we are down to an annual lunch, well, so be it. Let’s repeat — at the very least! Beth . . . xo
Let’s not leave it that long! January and February stretch out ahead, cold and bleak. Perhaps we can find a nice snug place to lunch and catch up on the news. Yes, the Covid is quite over.
Thanks Philippa, fascinating as always, I recognised Honfleur straight away as I’ve been many times and a favourite bar is just in shot 🙂 It’s a lovely town, well worth a visit although best out of season as it gets very busy when the cruise boats are in town. regards GN
I have been there once, many years ago and found it delightful. Glad you enjoyed the blog.
Thanks Philippa…so entertaining! I must pick up Maigret novel at the library. Hope you have made a complete recovery from covid Olive
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Yes, thank you so much. You will find several of the books mentioned in the blog at the Beaches library. This is not a coincidence!
Thank you Philippa – I used to lap up Maigret books as a teenager. Then we got a TV in time to catch Rupert Davies strike a match on the wall of a dark allée to light his pipe – Ron Grainer’s brilliant theme kicked in (accordion, natch…) – and another episode from the casebook unfolded. That’s BBC, 1960-63.
But this is making me proper Paris-sick! High time we returned.
Hi Martin, How nice to hear from you! Happy New Year. One day, perhaps, we will both be in Paris at the same time and can raise a glass to Maigret in the Place Dauphine. Another reader recommends La Taverne Henri IV. Worth investigating. Philippa
What a lovely article. “one doesn’t so much open a Maigret novel as wrap oneself in it” is so well put. I bought the complete set of Maigret novels at the start of lockdown and am so glad I did. I’m sure I will read them all several times should I live another decade or two (I’m 60 now so this is by no means certain!).
The Brasserie Dauphine seems so real I was disappointed to learn that it doesn’t exist. I would have loved to have paid it a visit and sampled the beer and sandwiches.
That was a well-timed purchase on your part! I have read perhaps 30 or so Maigret novels, and I plan to keep reading more every so often. But how lovely to be able to saunter over to the bookcase and pick which one!