■ By Jim Hitt / Contributed
Rowan Atkinson is an English actor best known for his comedic work in Blackadder and Mr. Bean. When I first heard he was to play Inspector Maigret in a series based on the novels of George Simenon, I could only imagine the rather stoic and serious detective re-invented as a rubber-face comic character. Wow, was I wrong!
Between 1931 and 1972, Simenon published 76 novels and 28 short stories about the fictional French police detective. The character first reached the screen in 1932 in Night at the Crossroads directed by the great Jean Renoir. Since then other actors such as Charles Laughton and Jean Gabin have played the part on the big screen. Maigret has appeared in French, British, Irish, Austrian, German, Italian, Dutch, Japanese, and Russian television series. In 1992 Granada Television produced an adaptation starring Michael Gambon. Each episode was less than an hour and told a complete story.
Now comes another Maigret, again a British television series, this time set in 1950’s France. The first series of two episodes aired in 2016, and the second a year later. Each episode, based on one of the novels, is 90 minutes in length. Each is a complete story.
Rowan Atkinson plays it straight, never once going for laughs. The actor doesn’t quite fit the physical description. Maigret is rather stout, much more like Gambon in the 1992 series. Far more importantly, Atkinson projects the world-wariness of Maigret, yet rather than make him bitter, his life experiences make him more observant, intuitive, and empathetic. He is not a detective who depends upon physical clues but rather physiological ones. He understands people and their motivations.
Maigret is surrounded by people who admire him, most importantly the men under him who follow his orders without complaint but who are individuals themselves, able to make both positive and negative decisions that affect cases. His most ardent admirer and also the love of his life is his wife who often provides needed guidance.
In the first episode, “Maigret Sets a Trap,” the detective must uncover the identity of a murderer who kills women with no common feature except their hair. In “Maigret’s Dead Man,” a man calls the police asking for Maigret and claims he’s being followed by someone trying to kill him. That night, his body is found, and Maigret, riddled with guilt for not saving “his” dead man, sets out to find the murderer. In “Maigret’s Night at the Crossroads,” the detective investigates the murder of a Jewish jeweler found in the car of a Danish national who lives with his sister. But who is the Dane and is that really his sister? And in “Maigret in Montmartre,” an exotic dancer and a mysterious “countess” are murdered, and Maigret searches for clues that link the two women.
Taken at face value, the plots of these four episodes offer little in expanding the detective story. Certainly, plots are important here, but the real value lies in Maigret and those who inhabit each case. No cardboard figures here. Each is complex and three-dimensional. Don’t let clues get in the way. Read the people, solve the case.
Unfortunately, the series has not been renewed. These four stories are everything good mysteries should be and much more.
To wrap up: physiological mysteries tend to be slow, but these are involving and suspenseful.