Parisian Chief Inspector Jules Maigret first appeared in 1931 and smoked his thoughtful way through an amazing 75 novels and 28 short stories (often at the rate of three novels a year). His creator Georges Simenon was Belgian rather than French, but moved to Paris in 1922 to further his writing career. Maigret has been portrayed (in English) by Rupert Davies in the 60s and Michael Gambon in the 90s, and now by Rowan Atkinson in a new ITV series. Atkinson’s first two-hour first episode, Maigret Sets a Trap, is based on the 1955 novel of the same name.
It opens with the Inspector’s trademark pipe and some typewritten exposition. A killer is stalking the Montmartre district, and the death of his fifth victim spells trouble for Maigret, who is summoned before the Minister for the Interior for a dressing-down. The problem is that there is no discernible pattern to the deaths. So far the killer has attacked a prostitute, a midwife, a dressmaker, a post office clerk, and a young mum.
“He leaves no witnesses, he makes no mistakes.”
With his reputation on the line, Maigret hatches a desperate plan. Believing pride to be the killer’s weakness, he stages an arrest and hopes it will prompt the murderer to show off with another death. He puts 12 volunteers from the women’s section on the street – and waits for an attack.
“I think he’ll strike again and I think he’ll strike tonight.”
Maigret’s creator Georges Simenon conceived of him as “a large powerfully built gentleman… a pipe, a bowler hat, a thick overcoat”. Atkinson has the pipe and the gentleman bit, and the powerful build can’t be helped. His Maigret is taciturn. He doesn’t open his mouth until 10 minutes into the episode, rarely speaks more than a line at a time and that very softly. Atkinson has definitely subdued his comic side to play the Chief Inspector:
“The thing I thought I could do was his thoughtfulness. That it’s his ruminative, thoughtful and quite compassionate side, I suppose, which is interesting. Because he’s definitely not an egotist, he’s not a performer, he’s not an eccentric, he’s not a weirdo, he hasn’t really got a bad streak in him. Maigret’s humanity is important and it’s admirable.”
Atkinson conveys this with an infinite range of worried stares from beneath a trilby, furrowed brow and bushy eyebrows. The down-turned mouth and five o’clock shadow also helps.
With the addition of a few Metro stations, Budapest does a good job of standing in for 1950s Paris. Washing hangs out of the windows of tenements, stray cats wander around the bicyclettes and the milk pails, and masses of authentic-looking posters line cobbled streets and alleyways. The interiors are gorgeous, from smoke-filled offices decorated with pinboards and maps of Paris, to the marbled grandeur of the Ministry of the Interior, to a spacious modern artist’s apartment. The costumes seem to be spot on too: three-piece suits for the chaps, brightly coloured dresses and red lipstick for the ladies. The music is atmospheric if not especially French.
It all looks fantastic – very expensive, very glossy, and very authentic – and Atkinson does a good job as Maigret; subdued, thoughtful, and caring. The starkness of Simenon’s vision – his was often a particularly cold universe – comes through nicely in the final scene with the killer.
Episode two, Maigret’s Dead Man, follows later this year.
Rich edits his own blog, Past Offences, which specialises in classic crime fiction reviews. Go here to have a read