Still in chapter one, they meet in a café called Le Métro, after which the nervous young man decides to take Maigret to his home in Rue Saint-Charles, where Maigret immediately recognises the terrible smell of death. The decomposing body on the multicoloured Moroccan carpet that is attracting a cloud of bluebottle flies is the pickpocket's wife, Sophie.

The man, Francois Ricain, tells Maigret that two days earlier, under threat of eviction, he went out at night to try to borrow money to pay the rent, and on return he discovered her shot dead. He panicked and kept low, away from home, because he knew he would be the prime suspect. Almost broke, he stole the wallet, and when he realised it belonged to the famous Maigret, who has a reputation for being sympathetic, he turned to him for help.

As noted, this is all the basic action of the book. In the remaining eight chapters, no one else is killed, there are no car chases or rooftop pursuits (which would be pretty unusual in a "Maigret" book anyway), no siege of a holed-up suspect, not even the usual stake-outs and surreptitious trailing of suspects that Maigret's colleagues are often called upon to do. "Maigret's Pickpocket" is a prime example of the singular way in which the famous detective operates, relying on his powers of intuition and perception to get inside the skin of everyone involved and eventually identify the killer. His sheer overwhelming presence often pushes the guilty party into confessing.

Francois Ricain is a 25-year-old journalist but he's not attached to any particular paper. He sells his articles wherever he can, mostly film reviews. He's also an assistant director on films and occasionally he works on screenplays. But he's a loser, always hard-up; behind in his rent and owing money to all the local traders. He's waiting to start an illusory career – perhaps writing novels or screenplays or perhaps directing films – that never actually begins.

His wife wanted him to get a steady job, causing them to quarrel. After three years of marriage and whatever dreams she had, they were stony broke. She was shot dead by a gun Francois bought when drunk and while showing off once, and that he kept in their chest of drawers. He maintains that after discovering she had been killed with the gun, he panicked and threw it in the Seine, beyond the Pont Bir-Hakeim.

Maigret zeroes in on Ricain's circle of friends: a film producer, Walter Carus, and his live-in mistress Nora, an ex-model; an abstract scupltor called Maki who lives in the same building as the Ricains and for whom Sophie once posed naked; Gérard Dramin, a first-assistant director; a photographer, Jacques Hguet, also living in the Ricains' block; and Pierre Louchard, a homosexual with an antique shop on Rue de Sevres.

Maigret goes on the trail, in his slow, patient way, particularly to their local hang-out, the Vieux-Pressoir restaurant. It is run by Bob Mandille, once one of cinema's most famous stuntmen, and his wife Rose, who sang for years as Rose Deval at the Trianon-Lyrique. The Detective Chief Inspector goes to the Vieux-Pressoir to watch and wait.

He talks to the group, observing that it is a strange case, strange people: "He had so far only skimmed the surface of this small world: thousands of similar circles, tens of thousands even, must exist in Paris, made up of friends, relations, colleagues, lovers and mistresses, fellow-regulars of a café or restaurant, circles that form, grow close for a while, then break up to form other more or less parallel little worlds."

It is typical Maigret. He goes, he looks, he smells, touches, senses, gets the feeling of the situation and the people he has to deal with. His methods are his own. He much prefers calling in person on the suspect to be interviewed or interrogated rather than having him or her brought to his office. Thus he becomes inevitably involved in the action, suspense, danger or laughter, and he sees it all with the eyes of a great humanitarian.

Maigret pays for Ricain's food and drink when they meet and installs him briefly in the Hotel des Cogognes on the Isle Saint-Louis rather than have him returning to sleep at the scene of the crime, which has been disinfected and has the smell of formalin in the air. Maigret, who would have been penalised a month's pay if he did not get his police badge back, even gives him 20 francs to get by.

Georges Simenon

On display here are the greatest characteristics of Simenon's creation, his infinite patience and his compassion for people regardless of age, background or the pain and suffering they put each other through. He intuitively knows how human beings tick and therefore why both killer and victim behave as they do. He single-mindedly pursues justice for one and all.

"Maigret's Pickpocket" is a typically good read without being one of the strongest in the series. The ending is rather an anti-climax and the action is even sparser than usual. The book is heavily dialogue-driven and nearly all the action is in the Detective Chief Inspector's head. Still, that's quite a fascinating place to be in itself.

"Maigret's Pickpocket" was originally published as "Le voleur de Maigret" in French in 1966. It is number 66 in the series of 75 "Maigret" novels that Belgian author Georges Simenon (1903-1989) wrote between 1931 and 1972, and which are being reissued chronologically and monthly with new translations by Penguin Books.

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