Discussion of Simenon’s remarkable productivity is frequently couched in terms of the seventy five Maigret novels and accompanying twenty eight short stories written over the course of forty one years. The twelve months following publication of Pietr the Latvian saw a further nine books issued, Simenon’s exceptional discipline and fecundity of creativity having been honed during a career in France’s pulp magazine industry. Estimates vary of the number books written before the creation of Maigret but conservative reckonings put the figure somewhere in the region of one hundred and eighty.
An impatient writer, Simenon frequently invented the plot whilst writing a novel. Perhaps as a consequence of the decision not to prepare a detailed storyline before sitting down at in front of his typewriter, despite an ever present editor’s deadline, the prose is clear and direct whilst paying homage to classic French literature. Publicly pronouncements stressed the importance of creating commercially successful fiction not literary masterpieces but fans may, with some credibility, argue he achieved both.
Despite having repeatedly proven he was able to deliver a book length manuscript on time, and often within incredibly short deadlines, the publisher was initially unconvinced about the Maigret novels. Suggesting that the books had limited to commercial appeal due to a lack of violence and an unromantic main protagonist, Arthème Fayard tried to coax Simenon into ditching them and returning to the fiction forms he was adept at churning out to order. Sales figures and critical response swiftly alerted the publishing house to the novels immediate viability and in subsequent decades the appreciation would magnify as international editions were issued and the production of numerous film and TV adaptations ingrained Maigret within popular culture alongside the other giants of detective fiction: Sherlock Holmes and Phillip Marlowe.
The first novel, Pietr the Latvian, established the hero, his modus operandi, story milieu, and distinctiveness of the author’s voice particularly in comparison to the then prevalent schools of crime fiction. With meticulous concision Simenon painted vivid pictures of a France still scarred from the wounds of World War I and soon to be engulfed by The Great Depression. In cultural terms although working in a different medium and bound by the constraints of genre his documentation of now lost French buildings and social practices places him firmly alongside that other recordist of environments, Eugène Atget. From the opulence of Parisienne hotel suites to less salubrious railway cafes, Simenon’s recounted civil minutiae with surgical precision, ensuring that then contemporaneous readers were able to appreciate his skill in placing Maigret within a fictional world that was a recognisably accurate reflection of the one in which they inhabited.
Equally focused on the quest to apprehend the suspect and understand his motivations, Maigret employed the then relatively fresh additions of forensic science and psychology to the criminologists arsenal, ensuring he was able to see the foe as a fully drawn human being with hopes, desires, and foibles instead of a statistic on a a crime sheet. By taking equal care with constructing the antagonists’ backstory and making some astute decisions as to the precise moments when this information is revealed, Simenon justifies his position as one of the key writers in twentieth century crime fiction.
Having spent much of the première instalment in this series trying to see beyond Pietr the Latvian’s false identity and discover the truth about a murky web of cross border gangland activity, The Late Monsieur Gallet sees Maigret investigate the death of a commercial traveller in a hotel room. A more intricate plot than its predecessor packed with melancholic despair and a forlorn cast of characters and places. The pipe smoking hero has to delve deep into the deceased’s past to discover what dark secrets could have led to him being murdered. Duplicitous lives are placed under the microscope by the Chief Inspector as he endeavours to peel away decades worth of ingrained falsehoods and determine how a seemingly impoverished man was able to finance an extremely generous life insurance policy.
His professional curiosity piqued after witnessing 30,000 Francs being parcelled up and posted, Maigret follows the sender from Brussels to Bremen. The trail goes cold when the suspect takes his own life. With just an empty suitcase, blood stained suit and forged identity papers to base an investigation on, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien sees the Chief Inspector haunted by guilt throw himself in pursuit of the mystery of why such a large sum of money was sent in the mail. Back in Paris the theft of his personal luggage propels Maigret to break through layers of deceit and intrigue as he sifts through the testimony of a group bound together by a dark secret.
In The Carter of ‘La Providence‘ Maigret is dispatched to Dizy, Marne. A woman has been strangled, her identity unknown. A British lord arrives on his yacht and claims that the deceased was his wife. Traces of horse hair and tar are found on the corpse and suspicion falls on the crew of a barge that was parked nearby at the time of murder. Overflowing with descriptions of the 1930s French canal lifestyle, the book is an emotionally potent read and a window into a lost world.
The Late Monsieur Gallet, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, and The Carter of ‘La Providence’ can be ordered from Amazon: