I’ve read only one Maigret book, but, grandiose as it sounds, I think I’ve seen straight through to the soul of Maigret. It lies in this line: “he knew now what it was he had wanted to be: a guide to the lost.”
The line comes in this broader context:
“Had he not in his youth dreamed of an ideal vocation for himself, a vocation which did not exist in real life? He had never told anyone, had never even given it a name, but he knew now what it was he had wanted to be: a guide to the lost.”
What would you become if you wanted to be “a guide to the lost”? Perhaps a priest, but I feel that Maigret has understood the wickedness of the world too well to be a priest. Perhaps, then, a psychiatrist? Maigret would have no confidence in the possibility of healing. Perhaps an author, philosopher, or composer of self-help books? In a metaphysical sense Maigret is an author (in that he exists primarily in fiction), but he would regard those professions as too soppy.
He was right to become a detective within the police force, not a strange, freelance detective like Sherlock Holmes.
The line about being “a guide to the lost” is in Maigret and the Headless Corpse, which at least one list on Google though the best Maigret novel. Usually I don’t read detective novels because I find them too formulaic, but I much enjoyed Maigret and the Headless Corpse–for its evocation of 50s Paris, its sparse prose, but most of all because Maigret is not concerned with who did it but why they did it, a much more interesting question. I was fascinated as well by his tussle with the main character and chief suspect, a severely damaged woman. How could she ever care enough to kill her husband?
“Madame Galas was no longer simply a colourful character, such as he occasionally encountered in his work. She was his problem, his responsibility.”
Maigret knows that it will take all his psychological insights to understand why she might murder her husband. None of the usual reasons for murder–professional assassins, misguided youths, passion, or money–applied.
“He saw him to the door, and locked it after him. There was, in the Chief Superintendent’s [Maigret’s] attitude to the case, a kind of diffidence that puzzled Lapointe. He could not have said when he had begun to notice it. Perhaps the previous day, right at the start of the inquiry, when they had come together to the Quai de Valmy, and pushed open the door of the Calas bistro. Maigret was pursuing his investigations in the normal way, doing all that was required of him, but surely with a lack of conviction that was the last thing any of his subordinates would have expected of him? It was difficult to define. Half-heartedness? Reluctance? Disinclination? The facts of the case interested him very little. He seemed to be wrapped up in his thoughts, which he was keeping very much to himself.
“What mattered to him was understanding what lay behind the crime….in this case, the problems were not amenable to police methods.”
“It seemed to him, in fact, that he had acquired a sixth sense, enabling him to penetrate the mysteries of human personality.”
Luckily Maigret is up to understanding what seems incomprehensible.
The book ends with Maigret in conversation with Judge Cornelian, a control freak and micromanager obsessed with “doing things right.” He is the antithesis of Maigret. We know that he never could have understood the crime.
Maigret speaks first:
“Did she [Madam Galas] have anything else to say?”
“No. She just asked me, as she was leaving, whether you had seen to her cat.”
“That you had better things to do.”
Maigret could never forgive Judge Cornelian for that.
As a guide to the lost, he has a kind of love for Madame Galas, and he certainly would have found a home for her cat. In fact, he already had.