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 hands, Paris becomes a haunted place of rain and darkness, where Maigret and his men spend long night shifts watching empty buildings, eating in stuffy, cheap bistros and making arrests in seedy hotels. And when dawn comes, Maigret is more than happy to put away brandy for breakfast, while outside in the street, “people [are] walking quickly, their hands in their pockets, their faces stiff with cold, all with their own little affairs, their own little concerns in their heads, all with their personal dramas, their need to do something.”
These short, sparsely-written works get their sense of urgency from the emotional tension Simenon wrings from his characters. In The Good People of Montparnasse, for example, a businessman is found shot dead in an apparently motiveless crime. Maigret interviews the victim’s daughter and asks about her mother—the dead man’s wife. What was she like as a parent? The young woman’s reply is almost unbearably revealing: “When I was a child, for example, I would sometimes exasperate her, as all children can exasperate their parents. Instead of slapping me, or getting angry, she’d turn pale and seem unable to speak. At those times, almost always, she’d lock herself in her room and that really frightened me.”
There aren’t many novelists who can paint such an affecting portrait in so few words. Simenon is the master of hints. That’s why his characters glare out of the page at you with such uncanny force and why his contemporaries regarded him so highly. “I love reading Simenon. He makes me think of Chekhov.” That was William Faulkner’s assessment.
But despite the success of his detective novels, Simenon didn’t think much of them. “At the time,” said Johnny Simenon, the author’s son, when I met him this summer at a crime writer’s convention in Bristol, “the French literary world was extremely haughty. I think he always had to justify himself with Maigret.”
In the face of this haughtiness, Simenon’s reaction was to dismiss his own writing. The Maigret stories were “minor works,” Simenon wrote in When I Was Old, his journal published in 1970. They were, he said, “semi-potboilers.” More important to Simenon were what he called his romans durs, his “hard novels,” the more literary and expansive works that didn’t feature Maigret.
Simenon didn’t come from a literary background. Born in 1903 he grew up in Liège, an industrial city in eastern Belgium. At the age of 15 he got work at a local paper and, as a young reporter, was thrown headlong into a seedy adult world. In the 1920s he moved to Paris where, as Johnny Simenon told me, “he learned his trade, churning out what was for him ‘pulp fiction.’” It was this grounding that taught him how to write quickly and he became staggeringly fast. “I used to write my novels in three or four days,” Simenon wrote. “Then 12 a year (at the time of the Maigrets). Then six (for nearly 20 years.) Now it’s down to four, because the older I get, the more they exhaust me.” In other words, four novels a year was, for him, a snail’s pace.
That extraordinary rate of output was achieved by feeding off his surroundings—the Paris crowd. Simenon was like a sponge. “In the city or the street or the park we see people. To us they’re just like shadows,” Johnny said. “He saw all these people as unique individuals and kind of absorbed what he sensed from them. It was from these absorptions that most of his characters come.”
Simenon’s most famous creation shares that fixation with the lives of strangers. When Inspector Maigret takes on a case, he is not so much solving a murder as solving the people involved. Once he understands the motivations and impulses of the suspects, the solution to the crime becomes clear. In The Lazy Burglar, Maigret says of one thief that, “He felt some sort of pleasure at breaking into other people’s lives, as they were being lived.” Simenon is describing himself.
And when he breaks into people’s lives what does he find there? In following this taciturn detective in pursuit of thieves and killers, what do we learn? A clue comes in Maigret’s Secret, when he says, caustically, of a magistrate: “I don’t think he has ever experienced a moment of self-doubt. He has no compunction in distinguishing the good people from the bad people and seems incapable of conceiving that people can exist in the grey area in between.”
Here is the central insight of the Maigret novels: that a true account of a person can never include a definitive judgment, even if they have committed a terrible crime. The magistrates can enjoy the certainties of their legal code. But Maigret cannot. He, perhaps like Simenon himself, has seen too much of the world to accept black or white verdicts.
This is not unthinking moral relativism, but a realisation that conventional morality, when combined with the justice system, is too blunt an instrument. The certainty it offers has no place in Maigret’s world. In fact, certainty itself is suspect. “The committed man,” Simenon once wrote, “whoever he is, makes me afraid, makes me bristle. I wonder if he is sincere. And, if he appears to me to be so, I wonder if he is intelligent.” The Maigret novels are not morality tales. The policeman is no agent of societal righteousness. Instead, Maigret’s investigations are meditations on human instincts—and when it comes down to it, how can you judge an instinct?
And so Maigret slowly unpicks the characters around him. But he is no tough interrogator, looking to break down a suspect. He’s looking for something else. Take this, again from The Good People of Montparnasse, where Maigret questions the victim’s wife:
“Forgive me for this ridiculous question, but do you know of any enemies he might have had?”
She did not let out a volley of protestations but merely said:
“What did you think when you found him dead on your return last night?”
She appeared to swallow hard and said: “That he was dead.”
Her face had become sterner, even more set, and Maigret thought for a moment that her eyes were going to mist over. “You didn’t ask yourself who had killed him?”
He thought he sensed an imperceptible hesitation.
That hesitation—that tiny suggested silence—is more revealing than anything she says. These moments of weakness are what Maigret is looking for. Through these flashes of insight, the detective works his way towards the truth.
In the end, Maigret always gets his man—or woman. These are detective novels, after all. But when the killer is caught, Maigret seems to get no kick out of it. He has no interest in the consequences of solving the crime. We hardly ever hear what happened to the perpetrator after a trial and in the rare cases we do, as in Maigret’s Secret, it turns out that the courts got it wrong. In Maigret’s world, judgments take you further from the truth, not closer.
But isn’t that aversion to judgment a bit odd in a crime writer? Why was Simenon so reticent? For the answer we might look to the boy of 15: young Georges Simenon, the cub reporter, thrown into a world of gambling and prostitution. A boy like that would soon develop a pretty thick skin, and an affinity for people on the wrong side of the tracks. He also might have fancied sampling some of the illicit delights on offer. (Simenon was well known for his goatish behaviour.) It’s easy to see how an early, corrupting introduction to that side of life could have made him instinctively non-judgmental.
But to look for another, perhaps darker explanation, there is the great controversy of Simenon’s life: that he lived undisturbed in France throughout the Nazi occupation, a fact that drew a good deal of post-war suspicion. In 1940 he had a wife and son—he was also a foreign national, a Belgian living in France, meaning he had to register each week with the local authorities. “The fact that you continue to live,” Johnny Simenon told me, “does that mean you approve? He never said anything in favour of Hitler.” Simenon’s behaviour was investigated after the war and no evidence of collaboration found. No wonder he bridled at the judgment of others.
Simenon didn’t think that Maigret’s appeal would last, and he was determined to exploit his detective novels commercially before they went out of style. He was more hopeful for his romans durs, and works such as The Snow Was Dirty are still powerful. But the final plot twist Simenon himself didn’t see was that his detective fiction would eventually draw alongside his other, supposedly more literary works, to become accepted as their equal. The reason is that Maigret’s investigations were, in fact, Simenon’s own—both were struggling to come to terms with the same things: with people’s failings, with their inability to live as they knew they should, with the darkness that inhabits us all.
“He felt much closer to men for their weaknesses than for their pretended strengths,” Johnny Simenon said of his father. “He was very receptive to the fact that we are a very weak animal. And we too often pretend to be strong when we are not.” Those words would apply just as well to Inspector Maigret as to the man who created him.
Maigret and the Lazy Burglar, Maigret and the Good People of Montparnasse, Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses, Maigret in Court, Maigret and the Old People, Maigret’s Secret, When I was Old, The Snow Was Dirty, The Pitards, The Hand by Georges Simenon, various translators (Penguin)