The Simenon case

The book I’m reading now is Simenon, a Critical Biography, by Stanley G Eskin, (McFarland and Co. Jefferson NC, USA 1987), and this is the reaction I have to what it has to say so far, specifically about the ‘Simenon case’, his accepted literary stature (critics like to be tidy about these things). It raises issues of relevance to anyone who reads.

Pop fiction

One of the fascinations of the work of Georges Simenon (1903-1989) is that it brings up the division critics make between ‘popular fiction’ and ‘literature’. Simenon is best known as the creator of Chief Inspector Maigret, a creation he was ambivalent about, for much the same reasons Arthur Conan Doyle was about his creation Sherlock Holmes.

Ways this division (even double standard) can be expressed include:

1. popularity vs quality: determining the value of a work of fiction by the number of copies sold versus applying detached rules of literary analysis. On examination, both modes are suspect, as sales do not reflect readership exactly, let alone involved readership; and analysis is subject to bias such as snobbery or conservatism (particularly in the case of Simenon).

2. popular literature aka therapeutic literature or formulaic literature versus ‘high’ culture, the received canon of the cultured elite. Supposedly, only a highly educated few have the discernment to appreciate fine art, while the bulk of the population respond to gross appeals to sensationalism and sentimentality. It is interesting to see that some popular fiction appears to have cut across this division, for example the work of Raymond Chandler, and that of Simenon himself, while ‘literature’ can be a best seller, eg Don Quixote or Robinson Crusoe.

Under examination, though this is rarely acknowledged, are the motivations of the four players involved in the production of a work of fiction.

1. the writer: is he or she writing to express their views of human nature, or merely exploiting a market? Is self expression unavoidable in any form of creative writing, no matter how formulaic? Is formulaic writing ever art, or always artisanship? Is literature not ever exploitative?

2. the publisher: is publishing no more than a business similar to ones producing, for example, soft drinks? Or is publishing seeking to reinforce cultural values? What is the role of the multinational company in publishing? Or of digital publishing?

3. the critic and reviewer: for whom does the critic/reviewer write? Are they advertising product for publishers to help sell copies of books? Or are they representing a cultural faction, social class or political viewpoint? How detached from bias and engaged with the work are critics?

4. the reader: why does the reader read? For enjoyment, escapism, wish fulfillment, exploration, snobbery, fashion, information or a combination of these and other motives? How involved is the reader in creating the art or reputation of the writer?

Another factor, peculiarly hard to evaluate, is occasioned by the nature of Simenon’s work. Predominantly about crime and its motivations, with some third of it concerned with the detection of crime; written in French and translated into many languages. When evaluating the English versions of Simenon’s books, it turns out the French and the English have different estimations of the value of such genres as Simenon worked in.

For the French, estimation of the entertainment value of a thriller can be combined with traditional critical estimates, such as characterisation and psychological realism. For the English, there are two separate baskets: the novel, where critical estimates are made; and the detective story, where sales, plot devices and fanship are discussed.

The crime story as literature

The history of crime and detective writing adds to the confusion of how to estimate this genre.

1841: The brilliant all rounder Edgar Allen Poe, one of the greatest figures of American literature, and a pioneer in journalism, criticism, poetry and several genres of short story, published one called The Murders in the Rue Morgue, which introduced rationalism within the sensational tale and the first master detective, C. Auguste Dupin. A clever, intellectual exercise in ratiocination, it was not one of Poe’s best tales, but proved the most influential.

1866: Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment, a serial thriller about a brutal murder and its detection which consists mainly of a hypnotic and disturbing account of the killer’s state of mind. It is usually regarded as one of the major works of 19th century literature.

Here are the two divisions of crime, and detection, into one or other of which all subsequent fiction in this genre can be sorted. Both these books are unequivocally works of literature, of artistry of writing skills and exploration of human nature. But interestingly, neither are what could be called ‘great’ works of fiction.

The crime story as pop culture

Other, socioeconomic factors came into play to launch the popularity of the crime and detective genre.

The first was the Industrial Revolution, which created seedy and overcrowded urban environments where crime was a problem. The London Police detective division was founded in 1842 to help deal with this situation, and had its own detective heroes who inspired fiction writers such as Wilkie Collins, whose The Moonstone of 1868 is considered the first detective novel. The urban poor were literate, unlike most of the rural poor, and a magazine and newspaper market was developed to take advantage of their custom. Many of the first detective stories were created specifically for these markets, such as the Sherlock Holmes stories serialised in The Strand from 1887. The reading public were catered for through enormously successful lending libraries, and newspaper kiosks sold cheap paperbacks to while away the tedium of the newly possible long railway journeys.

It was predominately the creation of a large middle class, minor entrepreneurs, shopkeepers and clerks, who formed the audience though for the detective story. They were the ones who suffered most when their property was damaged or stolen. Stories in which the criminal was tracked down and captured proved reassuring to this market. So the detective story was created, and read, with a therapeutic, not a consciously literary, aim.

In the next century Prohibition in America, which spawned big business crime, mobs, and well known figures such as Al Capone, led at first to a glamorisation of crime, seen in several motion pictures such as The Public Enemy of 1931. As knowledge of successful criminal organisations, and corruption in government and the police force became known, several influential writers of crime fiction became concerned to break away from the so called ‘golden age’ formula, and tried to create a new one, one that more accurately reflected the realities of crime as they knew it.

The school of Poe

The English detective story was derived, through the Sherlock Holmes stories, from the detective stories of Edgar Allen Poe. It was largely an intellectual exercise, in which the reader was encouraged to participate, to find the solution to a seemingly impossible mystery. Probability, characterisation and background were sacrificed to this primary aim. Earlier writers such as Wilkie Collins had striven to create believable characters, even if his, like Dickens’, were what EM Forster called ‘flat’. In other words, they were types, but not stereotypes. (Even Collins was forced to an improbable method of perpetrating the crime in The Moonstone in order to sustain suspense. In this he has been followed by virtually all who wrote this type of fiction).

The ‘golden age’ writers such as Agatha Christie abandoned such attempts. For them, writing was the creation of a puzzle and the finding of a solution, and they left a heritage of enjoyable, throwaway fictions impossible to take seriously as depictions of human beings and their problems. They were, however, great for railway journeys. And they were, unashamedly, popular, formulaic literature.

The ‘realist’ reaction

Crime writers in America in the 30s, like other citizens, were confronted with corruption, ‘unsolved’ crimes, gang wars, criminal practices such as ‘protection’, the mob, and criminals whose only provable crime was tax evasion. They tried to be more realistic in writing about crime than the ‘golden age’ writers. Firstly, they made crime an urban problem, not something that occurred at the village vicarage in a turn of the twentieth century rural England, where exotic poisons and weapons proliferated to serve a wildly improbably murder method. They made murder and violence a fact, not the pretense for a puzzle. And they showed the environment from which this crime evolved, creating the first whydunits, rather than whodunits.

The first of a new, ‘hardboiled’ school of crime writer (like Stanley Eskin, I don’t see what eggs have to do with crime) was Dashiell Hammett, an ex Pinkertons Agency detective who knew exactly what he was writing about, and wrote in a flat, effective, unemotional style similar in some ways to Ernest Hemingway’s. He influenced an even more influential writer, Raymond Chandler, who began as a poet and who did have literary ambitions, which he never fulfilled. Chandler bought an articulateness, command of English, a high skill in plotting (he himself felt diffident about his plotting) and a host of indelible characters and situations to his crime fiction which thoroughly crossed the line between popular literature and ‘art’ and confused critical estimate of his work.

French connection

The detective story in France followed a similar path. The stories of Emile Gaboriau were written at about the same time as The Moonstone, and followed Parisian police procedures in a similar way as Collins had followed London ones. Gaboriau also wrote many tales of criminals more properly called adventure stories.

This development was continued with Maurice Leblanc’s protagonist Arsene Lupin, who was a master criminal, with the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes. Leblanc, who had literary ambitions, was critically respected for his early writing but commercially unsuccessful, and turned to the Lupin stories to make money, influenced by the success of the Holmes stories. He was wildly successful in his aim, and like Conan Doyle, felt imprisoned by the popularity of his crime fiction over his more ambitious work.

When Simenon undertook a series of detective stories in the early 30s, he  had had four years experience as a journalist, and six years as a writer of pulp fiction under a multitude of pseudonyms. Simenon liked writing pulps. There was a formula to be learned, an expected product required by the reader, then it was simply a question of typing. The more you produced the more money you made. Simenon found he could write a short tale inside a week. He made a lot of money (and spent it flamboyantly: Paris in the 30s was a good place to spend money if you had it). But Simenon had literary ambitions. He also distrusted the literary establishment and the status of literary novelists. In this he was confirmed by the editor of some of his early magazine pieces, Colette. She kept on returning his work: “less literature, Sim (his pseudonym)” she kept on insisting, until he flattened and purged his style enough to satisfy her.

Simenon had read Gaboriau, Leblanc and the stories of Gaston Leroux, but he was moving away from pulp, formulaic writing. His first detective stories stood half way between popular and literary writing, and critics then and now have spent a lot of time trying to move his output into one category or the other. In fact what Simenon achieved in his early stories about Commissioner Maigret was similar to the attempt to add ‘realism’ to the ‘golden age’ story made by the American hardboiled school of writers. Firstly, the stories were in a variety of sub genres: procedural, detective, crime, PI and mystery were all tried in some way in the first dozen Maigrets. Secondly, Maigret was empathic and non judgmental about crime. He strove to understand the world and people he was investigating in a case, and so Simenon put the emphasis in his writing on creating atmosphere, and sketching in briefly yet in a compellingly realistic way the motivations of the criminals encountered by Maigret. If the classical detective story went back to Poe, and a writer like Highsmith was heavily influenced by Dostoevsky, then Simenon’s literary mentor was Conrad, a writer he admired immensely. Many of his stories were variations on the theme “Heart of Darkness”.

As Stanley Eskin notes, the 30s were after all the age of the Great Depression, Nazism, Fascism, Bolshevism and the Spanish Civil War, and the Second World War was approaching. Murder in the vicarage by an Oriental dagger or tropical poison was looking more and more unlikely.

Statistical approach

On 1 April 2003 The Wall Street Journal remarked on Georges Simenon: “In his lifetime Simenon published some 570 books, using 17 pen names, which have sold more than 700 million copies in 40 countries and were translated into 57 languages.” Clearly, he was doing something right. But what? Conducting a successful writing business, mass producing throwaway literature, or sounding a recognised chord in the minds of millions of readers?

It would be best to start by limiting the Journal‘s statistics. The pseudonymous work was not work Simenon wanted to be recognised for. It was his apprenticeship. Under the name of Simenon he published 230 books – novels, detective fiction and autobiography, over a 50 year period, writing from two to 12 titles each year between 1931 and 1981. His sales totalled over 500 million (some accounts say one billion), making him second only to Agatha Christie (whose sales total over 2 billion, making her the Elvis Presley of pop literature) among top selling detective writers. Perhaps of some significance, Simenon’s books were made into 50 films and eight television series, making Simenon a well known name to many who did not read his books. He is currently no. 16 on the list of most translated authors, following Agatha Christie and preceding Arthur Conan Doyle among detective story authors on the list.

It seems inevitable to say that the higher the figure of sales, the lower the common denominator the author is reaching. Give people what they are expecting and you will be a success. There are some who feel that art, on the contrary, is such a revolutionary activity that it is most likely to arouse the hostility of the public than gain its acceptance. However, that hostility quickly changes to acceptance if it can be demonstrated that the art sells. The painting movement of Impressionism is a case in point.

In other words, if you find a novel disturbing and it makes you uncomfortable, it may be art (it may also be badly written. You just have to use your discretion. Oh bother!). If you find it reassuring, and it makes you comfortable, you may have a formula tale in your hands. The important thing to remember is that one is not good, the other bad, as some snobbish critics would have you believe. They are just different kinds of experiences. And to add a bit of confusion, the formulaic tale can be written with considerable artistic skill, the work of art can be extremely reassuring. One can read an artistic story in a formulaic way, and a formula story with some critical detachment:  the reader has a role to play as well as the author, critic and publisher.

Assessing formula literature is considerably easier than doing the same with a work of literature. One talks in terms of the author. “A new Agatha Christie”; “Dorothy Sayers is again at the top of her form”, and so on. The new Dan Brown spent 12 weeks on the New York Times best seller list. Mickey Spillane wrote 20 novels that all sold over 500,000 copies. A bit like the way we talk of pop singers. Madonna has 15 platinum albums. Sting had a number one track for 15 weeks in 1989. Good heavens, we even speak of painters that way. A Van Gogh fetched $15 million this week at auction. An unknown Andy Wahol was discovered in a New York garret last week. It’s as if all works by artists we speak of this way are the same, production line stuff we don’t need to examine too closely to know what we’re getting.

Well, I don’t know about Wahol, but every Van Gogh is different. Excruciatingly so. You can tell they weren’t easy to paint, no matter how rapidly the paint was applied. To talk this way is to be superficial.

Yet not in the case of formula literature. If a Mills and Boon is not about romance, but social problems, it’s a failure and will be thrown away. With formula literature the deal is you know what you’re getting before you buy, just as with Die Hard 24.

Detective fiction, and even crime fiction, is often spoken about as if the genre was what mattered, not the individual novel. We speak of ‘the Sherlock Holmes stories’, or ‘the novels of Patricia Highsmith’, as if what mattered was the ambiance, not the execution of each book. We are apparently willing to overlook the fact that many Holmes stories are very poorly written, but some are superb; that Highsmith’s books became more mannered as she matured but that her early work definitely crosses the boundary between formula and literature. What we mean is that we are enthusiastic about the atmosphere Conan Doyle creates, the obtuseness of Watson and the deductive leaps of Holmes more than we are concerned with the way Conan Doyle writes or constructs his stories.

But when we react this way, are we not doing Conan Doyle a disservice? We may enjoy the formula, but he wanted to be taken seriously as a literary writer. He was that, at times. But we won’t give him credit. Instead we write imitations of the Holmes stories so as to have more of the same.


There are 60 Holmes stories all told. There are 230 Simenon books. It is a difficult job, but to get the full value of what Simenon has to offer, each of his books has to be evaluated. This is not often done. I’ve read three books on Simenon.

1. Stanley Eskin’s Simenon (1987)

2. Patrick Marnham’s The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret (1992)

3. Fenton Bresler’s The Mystery of Georges Simenon (1983)

4. I threw away Pierre Assouline’s Simenon (1997) as the product of a disordered brain, whose abusive assertions of antisemitism and Nazi sympathies were not supported by any evidence.

Bresler is a brilliant journalist who targets the newsworthy aspects of Simenon’s life, the famous people he knew, his daughter’s suicide, the 10,000 women, the decline of his talent with age, his relationship with his mother, and does find space for some assessment of Simenon’s work which is quite perceptive. Marnham’s is more a straight biography, which does look at the life as a source for the fiction, and the shape it took, but has such detail to convey, from a host of interviewees, that the fiction is somewhat skimped. It is Eskin, whose book is more condensed, in manner and style, than the other two, who manages to examine and evaluate, not only most of the books written as Simenon, but the pulp writing and even the journalism, giving brief reviews and assessments that are quite illuminating of Simenon’s strengths and weaknesses. All three books mentioned complement each other. Eskin is the handiest for an assessment of individual works.

This is the way to go for those interested in literature, and in adding what can be added to the books of value that can still be read with profit by all of us.

In the case of Simenon, many of his 230 titles can perhaps be discarded. They include recycled journalistic stories, semi biographical and full works of autobiography that are sometimes hard to follow, books where his execution is perfunctory, books written at too fast a pace, books he didn’t care much about – much as some Conan Doyle Holmes stories can be discarded for the same reason. Yet what remains can be considered a significant contribution by Simenon to modern French literature.

By 1934 Simenon had written about 20 Maigret novels, of varying quality; they had made him both rich and famous. As well, about 12 other novels, variously described as romans durs, psychological studies, non Maigrets, or just, novels, which had impressed French critics enormously. The so called case Simenon was born. Most agreed that Simenon was the greatest exponent of the detective story ever, showing literary gifts never seen before in the genre. Simenon himself didn’t see the Maigrets as genre fiction, but as ‘semi literary’ works. But was Simenon the greatest French novelist of the 20th century as André Gide said? The world was about to find out, as Simenon abandoned his hero Maigret, retired him, and embarked on a literary career. Strangely enough the case Simenon is still not closed. Not enough people have read the 150 romans durs critically and assessed them. My experience is that, even in an English translation, Simenon can be a powerfully emotional author; that one as reader can experience the ‘crisis’ which both Simenon as author and his central character experienced in each book. The autobiographical Pedigree I found literally unforgettable. On the other hand the 75 Maigrets are read, usually uncritically, and much is made of the pipe, the stove, the intuition and the weather depicted in each one, as one remembers the London fog in Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories. I think myself that Simenon in the romans durs writes like Maigret investigates, that his work is more unified than supposed.

Someone should write an essay on the role of the pipe in detective fiction: they all smoke them!

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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