It is April 1913 in Paris and a foreign monarch has arrived in great pomp at Longchamps Station to be greeted by the President of the Republic. Official landaus, flanked by the National Guard in full dress uniform, have paraded down the Avenue du Bois and along the Champs-Elysées, between two lines of flags and people. Paris is a city of clubs and salons, of gas lamps in the streets and of broughams and barouches in the Bois de Boulogne. Where there are horse-drawn cabs there are stables and the sound of a blacksmith's hammer. French society has not yet been shaken by either war or the breaking of social barriers.

Jules Maigret is 26 years old, he joined the force four years ago and has been through the humblest of its branches: street duty, policing railway stations and big stores, and he has been secretary of the superintendent of the Saint-Georges Police Station in Paris, in the quiet Rue La Rochefoucauld, for almost a year. Simenon doesn't trouble to explain the workings of the French police force in these early years of the 20th century, and we don't quite understand how Maigret is both a policeman and a secretary, or clerk, but, well, he is, and let's not worry about it.

# Georges Simenon

The young man has at least one unpleasant memory, Simenon reveals, a stupid incident that had practically decided him to leave the police. It was scarcely two years earlier and he had been put on street duty, with his special job being to catch pickpockets on the metro. He was mounting the steps at a metro station when he saw just in front of him a fellow in a bowler hat neatly slit the handle of an old lady's black velvet reticule.

Maigret leapt on the man and tried to hold him. The foxy fellow began shouting, "Stop thief!", and it was the mufti policeman whom the crowd attacked with a rain of blows, white the thief discreetly made off.

Back to the present, or at least, 1913, and the young Maigret and a constable are doing nothing much in the Saint-Georges Police Station after midnight when a man, Justin Minard, a flautist from the local brasserie band, dashes in to report having seen a woman crying for help from a second-floor window in Rue Chaptal, and the sound of a gunshot. He'd rushed to the door but been punched in the face and thrown out by Louis Viaud, the butler.

Previously, Maigret has only accompanied his chief, Superintendent Maxime Le Bret, on serious cases, but now it is late at night and there is no Le Bret, so Maigret goes alone to investigate. The house in question, it turns out, is 17A Rue Chaptal, occupied by the most distinguished name in the whole district, the powerful Gendreau-Balthazar family, the coffee kings of France.

Maigret is welcomed facetiously by the toffish Gendreau-Balthazars and assured nothing is wrong. What woman? What gunshot? Le Bret and his wife are social acquaintances with the mighty Gendreau-Balthazars and often dine with them, and the men meet at their club, so the next day Le Bret is inclined to ignore Maigret's report. However, he spots a lie: Lise Gendreau-Balthazar, who the family had told Maigret was in the countryside at Anseval, Le Bret knows from his wife to have been in Paris.

The superintendent assigns the eager Maigret to follow up the investigation on his own, which is the first time the subordinate has been trusted to fend for himself. But he quickly discovers that it is no easy task for a young country-bred policeman to break social barriers and penetrate the secrets of the upper crust.

Still, a novice he may be but Maigret doggedly applies the deductive reasoning that will become his trademark. He recognises that if he can succeed he is in line to be quickly be elevated from the suburban police station to the Chief's Squad in Police Headquarters at the Quai des Orfevres, where the heavy-duty police work is carried out.

Overcoming obstacles and condescension from both his colleagues and criminals, and narrowly escaping with his life at the hands of a couple of deceptively jolly toughs, we hardly need say that Maigret untangles Simenon's rather convoluted goings-on and prevails in the end.

Along the way, someone higher up had decided that discretion was the best policy and the dirty linen of the warring Gendreau-Balthazar factions should be hushed up, making Maigret angry and, again, considering quitting the police force altogether.

In uncovering the wealthy family's dark secrets he is taught his first lessons in modesty, patience and stoical forbearance – those qualities that come to mark his whole formidable career. He also develops his considerable drinking powers while observing the comings and goings in Rue Chaptal for hours from inside a restaurant opposite, where the patron plies him repeatedly with calvados.

Another point of retrospective interest: the Maigrets have been married only five months and are already living in the apartment in the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, eventually to become as well-known in its way as 221B Baker Street. They only intend to be there for a short time until they find somewhere in a nicer district, but 30 years later they are still there and have taken over the next-door flat as well.

Simenon gives the newly-wed Madame Maigret more attention than her usual shadowy presence in the other books. She is fresh-looking, smiling and smelling of toilet soap, "the kind of girl you only see in patisseries or behind the marble counter of a dairy, a big girl, full of vitality". And she is merely amused when Germaine, a lusty chambermaid at 17A Rue Chaptal, does her best – unsuccessfully – to bed the faithful Maigret.

We can almost imagine the libidinous Simenon drooling over his typewriter as he describes Germaine's pink skin through her nightdress, her heavy swelling bosom and – one of his particular fascinations – the red tufts in her armpits. Good old Georges!

Penguin Books is republishing all 75 "Maigrets" one a month in chronological order in new translations of the original French. As of November 2018, the reissues stand at number 61, "Maigret's Anger", from 1963. "Maigret's First Case" was published in France as "La Premiere enquéte de Maigret, 1913" in 1949 and was number 30 of the 75.

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