Georges Simenon and Inspector Maigret

cellars of the majesticWhen I was first growing serious about learning French, I was advised repeatedly to read Simenon’s Maigret stories. The French was so simple! I was assured, and they were good stories, too. I have no idea why I resisted, sheer perversity, I expect. When I was teaching French, I was often asked if Simenon was one of the 20th century authors I taught – being, I think, one of the few French authors with whom most people were familiar. I did not teach Simenon. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I finally read a Simenon novel for the first time. And now it’s taken me an absolute age to get around to reviewing it, though not because it wasn’t an enjoyable experience to read. In fact, I whipped through it in no time, loved it, and wondered why it had taken me so long.

Inevitably, having finally read Simenon, I became curious to know something about the man. What a life! He published almost 500 novels and hundreds of stories, using many pseudonyms. Born in Belgium, he moved to Paris as a young man where he worked as a journalist, always with a taste for frequenting the seamier side of the city. His love life was particularly energetic. He married and then began a decades long affair with his housekeeper. The second world war intervened and Simenon got himself into hot water over collaboration. I imagine he behaved much like Colette did – with a sort of hard-headed peasant pragmatism. Colette wanted very much to eat, which meant she had to sell her work, and so her basic view was that she would sell it to whoever was buying. Simenon would eventually be sentenced to a five year prohibition on publishing, but it wasn’t observed. Not least because, once the war was over, Simenon took his family to America for a decade. His wife had found out about his affair by now and the marriage was struggling. Simenon promptly began a new affair with the woman he hired as his secretary and they married and had three children during a stormy relationship. In 1955 they all returned to France, and ten years later, Simenon divorced and married again – yet another of his housekeepers. He claimed by the end of his life to have had 10,000 lovers, and that he wrote 60 to 80 pages a day. Judging by his output, the writing claim is probably true.

Inspector Maigret was his greatest creation, his first novel featuring him published in 1931. He would go on to write 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. The thing about these novels is that they are very short – 120 pages or so – but they manage to have the same depth as a book of much greater length. I’ve thought for a while that the tendency in publishing lately is to allow books an extra 100 pages more than they need, and there isn’t a better case for concision than Maigret.

In The Cellars of the Majestic, Maigret is called to the discovery of one of the hotel’s guests, strangled and unceremoniously dumped in a locker in the staff changing rooms. The victim is the French wife of a rich American businessman, and certain pressures are brought to bear on Maigret to go easy on the guests. Maigret has no intention of doing any such thing, but once he finds that the husband’s affair with the governess to his children gives him an alibi, Maigret is happy to leave the bourgeois to their own devices. He is, in any case, far more intrigued by the complex workings of the servant underworld in the hotel, and in the sad circumstances of the main suspect for the murder, the hotel’s coffee-maker, Prosper Donge. Prosper is a sad soul, an ugly red-head who lives in a platonic sort of relationship with Charlotte, a lavatory attendant at a nightclub. It turns out that they both knew the murdered woman when they were all working in the South of France. From there, Maigret is hot on the lead of a complicated story of prostitution, blackmail and unrequited love.

It’s hard to put one’s finger on what makes this book tick along so satisfyingly. There’s a wonderful evocation of place and landscape, vivid yet brief; the characters are drawn so sympathetically – at least they are sympathetic in Maigret’s understanding gaze – and the puzzle is convoluted in its unravelling but simple in its solution. The narrative chugs along swiftly, free from padding and all those scenes in contemporary crime novels in which no one learns anything of any note. In a book this size, every scene counts, every encounter progresses the story. And Maigret is a great understated, unshowy performer. Getting older, getting tireder, saddened sometimes by what he has to witness of human lives, but his sharp eye and rapid insight are never in doubt. Yes, perhaps that’s what ultimately makes these stories so comforting – you are never in doubt that Maigret is in control of the investigation and that he will succeed. Much like Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason and Jack Reacher – the foundation stone of the story is Maigret’s unshakeable competence.

Without doubt, I’ll be catching up on more of Maigret’s cases, thanks to the lovely new Penguin reissues. A steadfast hero in a short, vivid, well-plotted story; no wonder they remain classics.

30 thoughts on “Georges Simenon and Inspector Maigret

  1. Dare I say: I told you so?! Not all of Simenon’s work is of a high standard, of course – as well you might expect, given the prodigious output. Nor was he a very nice man. But Maigret is wonderful – solid, reassuring, fair. And the romans durs are much darker, quite different. Hope you’ll read more and enjoy them! But what did you think of the French?

    • I have to confess I read it in English! But I’m quite intrigued now to know how they sound in French, so that’s a route I may go down. You most definitely MAY say you told me so! I’m really pleased to have read him now, and will definitely be reading more.

    • Now that’s amusing because when I was learning to read French, I read Marguerite Duras and Agatha Christie in translation! I read the Christie mostly because I knew the stories already so it made comprehension a lot easier. I hope that the translator mirrored the good grammar in French!

      • That *is* funny! I’ve not read any Christie but wondered if I should. My grammar was learnt through Latin. Not at all fashionable to teach English grammar when I was at school.

  2. I think Simenon’s life is definitely better left alone. But his books are fabulous and I’m a huge fan of Maigret – he’s a wonderfully human detective, reliable and always making the right decision. I have loads of old Penguins, but I must admit these new translations are so tempting….

    • They are very lovely looking books, that’s for sure! I can’t believe I’ve come to Maigret so late, but I’m glad to be there at last! I love your description of him – so perfect!

  3. Simenon is, as I can attest, great for readers who are looking to gain greater fluency in reading. The structure is clean, there’s enough interesting vocabulary to provide expansion, and they’re highly enjoyable. Better late than never, indeed!

    • Indeed! That’s a good point you make about vocabulary. It’s strangely difficult to find books that expand you without overwhelming you. But I used to find that after the first twenty pages of any book, (usually spent endlessly looking up words in the dictionary), I could read more easily. I think writers do have a specific vocabulary and once you’ve got the hang of it, you’re home clear! Still, much better if you have a Simenon to broaden your word base gradually.

  4. This sounds great, Victoria. I’ve read a few of the Maigret novels, but not this one. (I started the series when Penguin reissued them, but I seem to have slipped out of the habit of late!) As you say, Simenon manages to pack so much into these books – his style is very economical.

    Funnily enough, I read one of his romans durs earlier this year: Three Bedrooms in Manhattan. Simenon wrote it in the 1940s, and it’s a fictionalised account of his relationship with Denise Ouimet, the woman he met in Manhattan in 1945. As you say, their affair was quite stormy by all accounts. There’s a review over at mine if it’s of any interest.🙂

    • Oooh, I must come and find that, Jacqui, as I’m very interested indeed. I haven’t got my head around the various parts of Simenon’s oeuvre at all, and didn’t realise he wrote a thing called a roman dur. So I’m very curious, and even more so it it’s a bit autobiographical. Thank you for telling me!

  5. Very good writing indeed, so simple in many ways. Maigret is a great invention, I like his slightly dour and sometimes careworn demeanour. I have read about twenty of the novels I think.

    • I had no idea you liked him, DP! You will have to tell me which ones you’ve most enjoyed. I very much took to Maigret and would be delighted to read more of his stories.

  6. My brother swears by Simenon and has probably read almost a fifth of his books by now! I must admit I have also resisted him so far (I’m not that much into crime novels) but your review makes me think I should try at least one. I should also probably get around to reading at least one Agatha Christie before I die. I’ve never been remotely attracted to her boooks either, even though everybody goes on about them so. Just why is she considered so fantastic?? (*collective gasp of shock from the audience*)

    • You’re right – I think crime fiction is a particular taste, and that you either have it or you don’t. I find crime fiction comforting, especially the ‘puzzle’ variety, which is very Agatha Christie territory. I read mostly Christie when I was 12-13 and loved them but I can quite see that they wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea (we’re still friends!!). The Maigret novel I read did have a wonderful evocation of France in it, and I think you could enjoy that as much as the plotline. But also, life is short and there are a lot of books to read and whilst I often say I should broaden my horizons, I tend more and more to read what I know I like!🙂

  7. Brilliant–I’m trying to pick up French again after being near-fluent at seventeen and then placing out of the classes that the high school system could offer. Simenon seems like an excellent way to get back into it. Lovely review, by the way, and totally agree about extraneous pages (Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is another instance of an incredibly profound book that covers its ground succinctly, efficiently.)

    • You will get your French back quickly, I feel sure. The vocabulary drops out of the mind fast, but if it’s been in there once, it’s so much easier to get it back. I have nearly read The Left Hand of Darkness on a couple of occasions without ever making it – I can see I will have to consider it again!

    • Heh! It certainly seems he wouldn’t have had time for both!

      I should read some of his books too, though, since I live in Belgium although on the Wrong Side, as it were.

    • Lol! I agree with you and Helen, Jenny! I think it’s… highly suspicious as a figure. Helen, I forget you live in Belgium. I do hope you haven’t been too much disrupted of late. I hope very much you’ve been on the Right Side in our current situation.

  8. You’ve definitely got me persuaded to pick up a Maigret novel.. I’ve been seeing the new translations around but it seems like a cheat to buy an English copy as I speak/read French. Maybe I should just try harder to find French editions! Great review🙂

    • Oh I feel just the same! Whenever I see a French translation I think I should read the original. But… if it’s any consolation, I felt like I was having a sneaky holiday reading it in English!🙂

  9. Another mystery/crime author you’ve introduced me to. I picked up 3 Elly Griffiths from the library (The House At Sea’s End, which I am currently reading, The Crossing Places and The Janus Stone) and which I hope I can finish before they are due. I’ve never heard of Simenon but I’ll check to see if the library has anything. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Litlove’s furniture is gorgeous! Does he have a website yet?

    • Grad, I just read another Elly Griffiths over the weekend; I’ve certainly moved her into my must-read camp. Do let me know how you get on! Simenon was very entertaining, and completely different. I should think he might work well on audio (well, either of them would, really). Thank you for your lovely comment about Mr Litlove’s furniture! He doesn’t have a website and we are thinking of primarily selling through local interior designers. But the direct ask approach will always work, too! And I’ll be posting pictures here. We are still considering a blog but can’t agree how it should be….

  10. Wow, what a life the man had! So did you read the book in French or English? And do you find yourself wondering why it took you so long to get around to it? If you are anything like me it is sheer stubbornness — everybody was telling you to do and the more they told you the more you resisted🙂

    • Lol – absolutely!! I love a recommendation, but once you get too many people telling you… well, the tipping point into resistance is easily reached! I read it in English in the end, tempted by a lovely new Penguin edition… and it did feel like a cheeky holiday!🙂

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