Maigret’s First Case explores the early days of an iconic literary sleuth.
In pre-World War I Paris, Jules Maigret, a future Chief Inspector, toils away as an assistant in one of the city’s quieter neighborhood precincts. When a bystander reports a cry for help and a gunshot emanating from an imposing house in a posh neighborhood, Maigret is surprised to draw the case. But figuring out who was killed and how turn out to be easier tasks than navigating the influence of a wealthy, powerful family.
Belgian author Georges Simenon produced a large body of Maigret novels and stories over several decades. Maigret’s First Case appears as part of Penguin’s ambitious project to reprint the entire series. While set at the outset of the sleuth’s long career, the books actually appeared closer to the middle of the run.
These “Year One” stories can be difficult to pull off. Fans find regarding any danger the central character faces seriously to be a challenge; after all, they know the hero pulls through. Simenon wisely used this installment to explore the development of his protagonist’s personal code and worldview. Contrasting the young Maigret’s inflexible morality against the worldly considerations of his colleagues allowed the author to showcase his hero in a good light, while also planting the seeds of his practicality.
The case itself was, perhaps, not entirely exciting, but was enlivened by a cast of well-drawn characters whom Simenon brought to life with economy and attention to smart details. Society scoundrels, put-upon servants, ethically flexible cops, working class toilers and a particularly amiable scoundrel made the necessary impact without taking up more space than was warranted. Simenon practiced an admirable economy that kept the plot moving, while still allowing for some well-deployed character beats. The morally ambiguous conclusion commendably declined to tie the entire affair up in a neat bow.
As a retro exploration of a well-known older character, Maigret’s First Case can serve either as a solid introduction for newcomers or an agreeable nostalgia exercise for readers already in the tent.