Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Detective and Priest: The Paradoxes of Simenon's Maigret

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Detective and Priest: The Paradoxes of Simenon's Maigret

Article excerpt

What distinguishes the Maigret stories of Georges Simenon (19031989) (1) from the detective fiction of authors like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle is their attention to the humanity of both the investigator and the investigated. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Christie's Poirot are essentially problem solvers, "pure logicians of time and space," as Michel Sirvent calls them (Merivale and Sweeny 165). "[hough Maigret can be as meticulous and persistent in his search for clues as any other detective, he ultimately resolves crimes by entering the humanity of the criminals he pursues, more interested in solving the mystery of broken lives than in finding the perpetrators of crimes. "There are no great feats of ratiocination" in the Maigret stories, "and the problems they present are human as much as they are criminal" (Symons 150). Commentators have recognized this deeply human character of Simenon's Maigret, but they have not noticed a fundamental paradox: though Maigret is, like his creator, a thoroughly secular man in his personal beliefs, he manifests a profoundly Christian, even priestly character in his approach to solving crimes. I will examine several stories that explicitly manifest the priestly vocation of Maigret and certain traits that seem best described as Christian.

Maigret's Vocation

While never using the term vocation, Simenon takes time in several of his Maigret stories to let the reader in on the deeper desire that undergirds Maigret's career as detective (policier). At the root of the police career lies a priestly ambition. Chapter V of La Premiere Enquete de Maigret (Maigret's First Case)--not the first of Simenon's Maigret works in spite of its title--bears the title, "La Premiere Ambition De Maigret," the first ambition of Maigret. It seems that Maigret chose to enter the police because it was closest to the profession (metier) he had always desired, a profession that really didn't exist. "Even as a young man, in his village, he had always had the impression that a great many people (des tas de gens) were not in their rightful place, that they were following a path which was not their own, simply because they didn't know better" (La Premiere Enquete 90). And he imagined a man "very intelligent and full of understanding (tres intelligent et tres comprehensif) ... both doctor and priest" someone "who would understand at his first glance the destiny of the other person" (90). People would come to consult such a person as they consult a doctor. He would be in some way a "mender of destinies" (un raccommodeur de destins). This person would be a mender of destinies not primarily because of his intelligence--in fact he might not have to be of exceptional intelligence--"mais parce qu'il etait capable de vivre la vie de tousles hommes, de se mettre dans la peau de tous les hommes" ("but because he was capable of living the life of all men, of putting himself in the skin of all men") (90). Above all, Maigret puts himself in the skin of those who suffer, who are driven to crime by desperation, or who have lived their whole lives as victims. He has no particular sympathy with the rich or powerful. In his identification with the poor rather than the rich, Maigret shows himself closer to the priestly role of Christ than to the clerics who would have dominated the Church of Simenon's years in Liege. If Maigret is priestly, it is according to the model of the compassionate founder of Christianity.

The idea of trying to enter the lives of others, to become part of their world, recurs regularly. In Maigret et le Client du Samedi (Maigret and Saturday's Customer), Maigret receives a strange visitor, Planchon, who is afraid with good reason that Maigret might take him for a fool. But Maigret was not satisfied with the idea that the man was a fool: "Il cherchait a comprendre davantage ; a s'enfoncer dans l'univers ahurissant de Planchon" ("He was trying to understand better, to enter deeply into Planchon's astounding world") (36). …

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