The Maigret series upends the conventions of the detective novelby Jay Elwes / September 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
Which author has sold more copies than JK Rowling or Stephen King? More even than Tom Clancy, Ian Fleming, Wilbur Smith, EL James and Beatrix Potter combined? The answer might surprise you. The Belgian author Georges Simenon, who died in 1989, in all sold nearly 700m books—more than any other non-English language writer, including Tolstoy.
Simenon’s novels, all 500 of them, made him famous and fabulously wealthy. He had an affair with the Parisian dancer Josephine Baker and counted André Gide and Charlie Chaplin among his friends. And standing behind this immense success was Simenon’s most celebrated character, Chief Inspector Maigret.
The deep-thinking Paris detective first appeared in 1931 and over the following 40 years went on to feature in 75 novels—currently being re-issued by Penguin. Maigret was a huge hit and not only on the printed page. His film debut was in a 1932 movie by Jean Renoir, and he has barely been off our screens since, appearing on television in France, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan and even the USSR. The most recent British television adaptation, in 2016, starred Rowan Atkinson.
For someone so wildly popular, Jules Maigret of the Police Judiciare, pipe clasped between his teeth, cuts a surprisingly low-key figure. He catches murderers with a kind of mesmerising calm. Not for him the Poirot-style flamboyancy: there’s no theatrical denouement in a drawing room filled with pearl-clutching suspects. Neither is Maigret a gun-waving tough guy in the Mickey Spillane mould, or clad in the stylish cool of Raymond Chandler’s LA private investigator. Simenon created an intense and interior landscape where, in place of clues, we find only suggestions and troubling ambiguities. Here he is coming across a body in Maigret and the Lazy Burglar: “The man was indeed nothing but a shapeless heap on the ground, in the frost-hardened grass. He wasn’t lying full length, but huddled, almost rolled up into a ball. One hand stuck out, still clenched, as if he had been trying to grab hold of something.”
“He felt much closer to men for their weaknesses than for their pretended strengths”
There is a bleakness to that trio of sentences that captures Maigret’s world perfectly. It is hard and unforgiving—like frozen ground. In Simenon’s…