The working methods of Maigret & Wycliffe
"My father read all of his [Simenon's] novels that he could get hold of, over a hundred, both Maigret and others and was particularly keen on the ones that analysed the psychology of the characters."
Simenon wrote 75 Maigret novels. He also wrote 28 Maigret stories, making a total of 103. On top of those he wrote several hundred other novels. He had a preference for short novels (all but five of his Maigret novels have page counts between 80 and 110) and liked to think that any one of his novels could be read at a single sitting.
Yet the characters that populate his novels are skilfully and memorably depicted. For example, few Simenon characters are more evocatively drawn than James, the Englishman, in The Bar on the Seine.
This early Maigret story also contains a vivid description of Maigret's approach to solving the puzzles that confront him in every case he works on, his unique method of working:
"He had handled hundreds of cases in his time, and he knew that they nearly always fell into two distinct phases. Firstly, coming into contact with a new environment, with people he had never even heard of the day before, with a little world which some event had shaken up. He would enter this world as a stranger, an enemy,- the people he encountered would be hostile, cunning or would give nothing away. This, for Maigret, was the most exciting part. He would sniff around for clues, feel his way in the dark with nothing to go on. He would observe people's reactions - any one of them could be guilty, or complicit in the crime.
Suddenly he would get a lead, and then the second period would begin. The inquiry would be underway. The gears would start to turn. Each step in the inquiry would bring a fresh revelation, and nearly always the pace would quicken, so the final revelation, when it came, would feel sudden.
The inspector didn't work alone. The events worked for him, almost independently of him. He had to keep up, not be overtaken by them."
La Guinguette à deux sous
Translated David Watson 2003
La Guinguette à deux sous (The Bar on the Seine), is almost extreme in its depiction of Maigret waiting for something to happen:
"And Maigret glumly pursued his investigation, proceeding by the book, questioning the concierge, the suppliers and the manager... The case was depressing in its banality, though there was something about it that didn't feel quite right."
And so Maigret follows his intuition and spends four successive evenings at the Taverne Royale in the company of James, the Englishman, one of the group of people involved in the case, joining him in drinking Pernod although Maigret normally only drank beer. By the third evening
"Maigret wondered whether they were starting to become friends. Today they didn't discuss the case."
Eventually, of course, something does happen and Maigret is already on the spot, able to benefit from being close to the event.
Elsewhere Maigret is less passive: in Maigret Voyage (Maigret and the Millionaires), published in 1958, he persistently asks questions until he has worked out who is responsible for the crime even though he is unable to find a convincing motive. Nor does he have the evidence necessary to secure a conviction. He then engineers a confrontation between murderer and possible witnesses:
"All the witnesses were still waiting next door, those who had really seen something and those who had seen nothing. By arranging them side by side in the order in which [the murderer] might have met them, the Superintendent had given the impression of an unbreakable chain of evidence."
Seeing them, the murderer believes the game is up and confesses.
Maigret has an engaging diffidence that remains fresh over the years, in book after book. He often does not know how to set about solving a case; at best he knows that he has to immerse himself in it and get to understand those involved. The following extracts are also from the 1958 Maigret and the Millionaires:
"He did not attempt to reach any conclusion, to solve any problem. He gave up thinking and just let his mind wander"
"It was just as well that the journalists who praised his methods did not know how he sometimes set about things, for his prestige would undoubtedly have suffered."
The final novel in the series, Maigret and Monsieur Charles, was published in 1972. Simenon died in 1989.
John Burley was clearly much influenced by Simenon, not least by his industriousness: once he had found his own fictional detective he wrote 22 books in that series, at an average rate of two books every three years.
He did not at once draw on Simenon's example. By training and education he was a scientist and his first book, A Taste of Power, featuring the amateur detective Henry Pym, owed much to his scientific background. Pym, an exponent of a scientific method in criminal investigation, has great confidence in the application of a well-tried approach, albeit one more often found in the laboratory. He is also intellectually arrogant and not afraid to show it - his opinions are expressed with absolute certainty.
In keeping with many later books, the detective does not appear immediately. Nearly a third of A Taste of Power has passed by before we are introduced to Henry Pym and his slightly flamboyant ways. Then, quite late in the book, the following appears:
"The following day was Saturday and the school was deserted. Henry arrived, alone, just before nine o'clock. He stood in the Old Quad, surveying the ugly red brick frontages and the rows of blind windows. A blustery wind whisked a few dead leaves capriciously round the paths. He walked through the tunnel into the New Quad and continued on to the car park and playing fields.
He had no purpose in view, his mind, to all intent, was blank. Each time he made a resolute effort to order his thoughts and direct them to the investigation, some trivial thing deflected them once more.
Fortunately, he was familiar with this phase in all the enquiries he had ever undertaken; the incubation period when ideas and facts could be allowed to arrange themselves in patterns, possible and impossible, seemingly without his intervention. At the end of such a period, he usually had achieved comprehension and a plan, scarcely knowing how he had come by either."
In Burley's second book, Three Toed Pussy, Charles Wycliffe appears, his nature in sharp contrast to that of Henry Pym:
"Although he was successful, having what is called a distinguished record, he always lost confidence in himself at the beginning of a case; he would avoid his subordinates for fear of sensing their mute criticism..."
And his way of approaching a case is spelled out by the second page:
"Wycliffe wanted to stop the sergeant talking. Soon there would be more than enough talk, an avalanche of facts, fictions, surmises and explanations; for the moment, he wanted to form impressions of his own."
In the next Wycliffe book, To Kill a Cat, Burley twice describes the detective's method of working:
"Wycliffe stood for a while, apparently lost in thought. Actually, though ideas chased each other through his mind they could hardly be said to have any pattern of rational consecutive thought."
"It was when he made an effort to think in a disciplined way about anything that he was most conscious of his shortcomings. And this reflection brought him back to the case. Not only did he find sustained logical thought difficult but he was always short of written data. He had the official reports but these were so full as to be almost useless. Any other detective would have a sheaf of private notes, but he rarely wrote anything down and if he did he either lost it or threw it away. Notes were repugnant to him. Even now he ought to be sitting at a desk with a notepad in front of him, jotting down his ideas, transposing and relating facts like a jig-saw."
Thirty years on, in Wycliffe and the Guild of Nine, the familiar description still appears to remind readers that Charles Wycliffe hasn't changed:
"As at the start of any investigation Wycliffe began his search for the first hint of a pattern, but so far there was nothing. He was handicapped - or thought he was - by his inability to retain facts, to arrange them in an orderly fashion, and from them to arrive at logical conclusions. His mind didn't work that way. Any thread of logical thought soon became tangled in a web of recollected scenes, incidents, remarks and impressions."
Readers will, of course, find endearing his lack of confidence in his own abilities; they will know that Wycliffe is a senior officer with a good track record, and they will be only too aware that he has an instinctive skill in unravelling complex cases. And from time to time John Burley underlines that awareness by slipping in a quick few lines that show Wycliffe's intuitive grasp of a situation while his colleagues are scrabbling in a wash of detail.
By definition, both Maigret and Wycliffe eventually reach an understanding of the case and those involved in it, and are in consequence able to identify the murderer.
But while Maigret may reach a point where he has to wait for something to happen, for the gears to mesh, Wycliffe collects impressions, remarks, and incidents, hunting persistently for more until he has enough to feed the mental process (frequently at night and during a disturbed sleep) that will give him the answer to the puzzle that has been nagging him for days, sometimes weeks.
© M de Pace