Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky is on the case. Unfortunately, it is a case of chocolate chip cookies.
"I hate Paris when it gets respectable. I prefer it tawdry. I'm sentimental like that."—Chief Inspector Maigret (Michael Gambon)
In most respects, it is a formulaic and traditional detective story: a man is murdered in his apartment, and the residents of the building are all suspects. The detective must interview each one, sorting through his or her motives, until the time when the identity of the villain is revealed and justice rendered.
The difference is in the detective. His name is Chief Inspector Jules Maigret, and he closed cases for nearly forty years in the pages of Georges Simenon's mystery fiction. I must admit up front that, although I teach detective fiction, I am not a reader of Simenon's classically-constructed novels. And I have somehow missed the many film and television adaptations (by such actors as Charles Laughton, Jean Gabin, and Richard Harris) until now. I do know Maigret's literary cousins quite well. The "classical" detective (as I typically call him) is a true agent of the law, stalwart and good (often even polite to the villains), incorruptible in all matters of justice. He is a very British creature, born in a time of Victorian certainty in the moral order of the cosmos (the prime example is Sherlock Holmes), and very different from the hardboiled, morally corruptible detective of Depression America.
Maigret may be French, and he may live in the 1950s (at least in this British television series, which ran for two seasons in 1992 and 1993), but he is the classical detective all the way. As played winningly by Michael Gambon (The Singing Detective), Maigret is dapper and light on his feet. His investigation method is efficient, proper, and confident. Maigret is "famous for my patience," but ruthless when it comes to rendering justice against murderers. Although the entire cast and tone of this Grenada Television production are decidedly British (I frequently forgot it was supposed to be Paris, or at least Budapest pretending to be Paris), where Maigret differs from his British predecessors is in his psychological insight. For example, in the premiere episode, "The Patience of Maigret," our hero interviews the suspects of the apartment building where a gangster's murder took place with marked empathy. Indeed, he actually sympathizes with the late gangster more than with his stuffy police colleagues. The residents of the apartment building are all stock characters out of the classical detective tale—the daffy bird-fancier, the kindly deaf-mute, the shady gambler, the flirt, the sneaky salesman—but Simenon and Gambon make them entertaining without falling too far into caricature.
But Maigret is not always sunshine. When a suspect does not cooperate, or when the killer is eventually unmasked, Maigret turns menacing without raising his voice at all. Again, this is a sign of Gambon's control over this character. Maigret can use both charm and fear as weapons in turn against crime. And even after Maigret has solved the crime, he still probes and asks questions and tries to discover what makes the criminals tick.
Koch Vision has released all twelve episodes of the Michael Gambon Maigret series in The Maigret Collection. There are no extras, and the prints are in noticeably mediocre shape: considerable grain and even blurriness are apparent, and some episodes are scratched and even washed out in spots. Like most British shows, this one was probably done on the cheap, but this show is not that old, so the condition of these prints is inexcusable.
The shows themselves are pretty good though, mostly because of Gambon's performance. A lot of the plot situations are pretty familiar. We get a couple of "location" mysteries, in which the detective picks through the suspects at a specific locale (a train, an apartment building, a party) where the crime took place. As noted above, "The Patience of Maigret" sticks to an apartment building. In "Maigret and the Hotel Majestic," we focus on, you guessed it, a hotel. Another standard plot is the "travel" tale, in which our detective (an urban sort) visits the country for some fish-out-of-water humor. Maigret visits his home town in one episode when a criminal challenges him with a written threat; in another, he travels to a seaside town to clear a frightened schoolteacher of the murder of the local postmistress; in yet a third, he solves the murder of a middle-aged man by focusing on the man's younger lover. In these sorts of stories, the detective is tempted by the simplicity of country life, often muses about retirement (we are told in one episode that Maigret is 52 and has been a detective for 30 years), but ultimately returns to the excitement of city life and violent crime. Besides, he is still quite happy with his wife, played by Ciaran Madden in the first six episodes and Barbara Flynn in season two.
The middle batch of episodes (based on Simenon novels written in the 50s and 60s) steer more towards noir. Maigret tracks a serial killer in "Maigret Sets a Trap." Minnie Driver guests as a strangled stripper with ties to one of Maigret's own detectives in "Maigret and the Nightclub Dancer." And in "Maigret on the Defensive," our hero is accused of attempted rape by a pretty girl at the center of an elaborate conspiracy to discredit him. We even get an espionage thriller, in which (in an update of Poe's "The Purloined Letter") Maigret searches for a stolen report for a government minister. These stories are often much darker in tone, although Maigret always solves the case and sets things right by the end of the hour.
At twelve episodes, Maigret does not have much time to fall into routine. And there are plenty of other Maigret novels available (about 75) to keep you busy if you find yourself hooked. Fans of British-style television mysteries, the sort that turn up on PBS here in America, will enjoy watching Michael Gambon put Simenon's great detective through his paces in The Maigret Collection. The lackluster presentation of this DVD set will not draw in any new viewers, however. Maigret is pretty easygoing though: he would probably just let Koch Vision off with a warning and spend his time trying to catch real criminals.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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