Reviewing Simenon

1 Simenon

In May 2011 I began a project to reread a representative selection of Georges Simenon’s novels. I didn’t want to read all his books: there were too many, over 200. But of the about 150 I have read over the years I had the impression there were quite a few that had had a strong impact on me.

My problem was that I couldn’t put this experience into context. The more I read about Simenon the more I realised there was no critical evaluation made of his work, in English at least. None at all. Simenon is widely regarded as a significant contemporary novelist, so this was surprising.

I was also confused by the fact that much of what I did come across about Simenon was not only not critical, but focused on how much he wrote, how many copies he sold and how much money he made. He was evidently a good businessman, but was that relevant in exploring his achievement as a novelist?

Much that wasn’t statistical about Simenon was uncritical. He is chiefly known as a detective writer to the English language reader, and so attention was focused on Jules Maigret, Simenon’s detective, in the kind of approach which is really a form of hero worship, applied by readers to heroes such as Nick Carter, Superman, Sherlock Holmes or James Bond. The giveaway is the byline: “a Maigret novel”; “Maigret #45” etc.

I don’t know why critics baulk at assessing Simenon, why they don’t see him as in the tradition of Franz Kafka or Friedrich Dürrenmatt for example. As I read I realised the problem may be that Simenon was an uneven writer. Much of what he wrote was mediocre, hack work in fact. Some of his work could be disparaged and dismissed, some was worthy of critical analysis, a fairly unusual choice for critics to have to make. Simenon no doubt made just as much money from his lesser work as from his masterpieces. His unevenness was due to his unusual method of writing. I have written about my own estimate of Simenon in other essays here. Now I just want to summarise my reviewing exercise, limited as that may have been. I won’t mention much about the books, as I have reviewed them all on this site.  I append an on the fly ratings checklist made as I read the titles.

2 Simenon

Over the past 18 months I’ve read 58 novels by Simenon, reviewed in 10 posts on this site. This represents just over one quarter of his output of fiction as the author Simenon (he wrote as much again pseudonymously). There were 129 novels and 78 Maigret stories all told. Of these I read 27 novels and 31 Maigret stories, comparatively more Maigrets, as the Simenon titles most available in English are the Maigret stories.

I took as my basis of selection the Penguin Simenon Omnibuses, 18 volumes of which were published 1970-82. On looking back I realise this was a non representational selection. Simenon was an enormously productive writer, one of the most prolific we know about. He was capable of writing a novel a month for long periods. He wrote in the period 1930-1973. But over the years he ran out of steam, producing fewer and fewer great novels among his many mediocre ones. Eventually he stopped entirely, unable to write novels at all. The Penguin Omnibuses focused on Simenon’s later contemporary work.

I read seven titles from the 30s, seven from the 40s, 12 from the 50s, 23 from the 60s and 9 from the 70s. As Simenon began to decline as a writer from the mid 60s, and stopped writing from 1973, my selection was comprised of more of his lesser work. But Simenon was an uneven writer, producing good, and bad, work throughout his career.

Of the 58 books I read and reviewed, 17 I considered masterpieces or near masterpieces (six of these were Maigret stories). This represents almost one third of all titles I read. If this proportion was applied to his whole production, this might mean Simenon wrote about 70 masterpieces in his career, probably more bearing in mind the bias in my selection of titles, along with about 140 lesser works, most of which are quite readable and almost all with good qualities.

3 Simenon

Simenon began his career in 1931 as a prodigy, publishing 11 titles and garnering much publicity from his prolific output. How extraordinary that a protégé of Colette, soon to be a protégé of Gide, and a writer compared to Balzac, should be a detective story writer, and a supreme one. The very first novel, Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett, was one of the best Simenon wrote, possibly the best of all the Maigret stories. Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, the third Maigret, was also one of his better efforts. In 1932 Simenon published another 11 books, including another good Maigret, Maigret Mystified.

My selection then jumps to 1939, the year of Simenon’s great novel about racial prejudice, Chez Krull, an extremely powerful, perfectly realised tale. In 1942 came the Maigret I liked the best, Maigret and the Hotel Majestic. One of the most celebrated of Simenon’s novels, and justly so, was the moving Monsieur Monde Vanishes of 1945. In 1949 came Four Days in a Lifetime, a novel about honesty and deceit, and in 1950 The Heart of a Man, one of Simenon’s greatest books, about a great actor. In 1955 another good Maigret, Maigret and the Headless Corpse. And in 1958, Striptease, a tragic tale of a woman’s fate. The next year came The Widower. In 1964 The Man With The Little Dog charted the career of a dying man with great pathos. The next year saw the publication of the acclaimed The Little Saint, a poignant tale of a good man and great artist. One of my favourite Simenon novels is 1966’s The Old Man Dies, about division in a family through financial success. 1967 saw publication of The Cat, about a vindictive marriage, and also a great Maigret, Maigret’s Pickpocket. Almost the last book Simenon wrote was the powerful The Innocents of 1972.

My selection omitted many other great books. Mr Hire’s Engagement published 1933; The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, 1938; The Stain in the Snow, 1948; and Simenon’s greatest book in my opinion, that same year of 1948, Pedigree; 1952’s The Brothers Rico; and The Little Man From Archangel in 1956. Also of note are volumes of Simenon’s short stories. He was a great short story writer, much of this work unpublished in English. There are the collections Maigret’s Pipe and Maigret’s Christmas, and The Little Doctor.

A separate study could be written on Simenon and the cinema. Almost 50 films have been made based on Simenon’s books. And there are the many TV series as well.

Surely 70 great novels is an extraordinary achievement for a writer. The other 140 titles shouldn’t be allowed to obscure this. Nor the man’s productivity, nor his popularity as a detective story writer. I certainly gained a lot from reading the 17 titles again that I saw as his best work in my selection of titles. Before Simenon can be seen as more than a phenomenon, and seen for the major author he is, an attempt should be made to sort his output into that of major and minor achievement, as I have attempted here.

4 Simenon

Checklist of Titles and Ratings

the Simenon Omnibuses (Penguin v. 1-18, Hamish Hamilton v.2)

rating, title, year of publication, and Omnibus volume

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett 1931, v.16

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets 1931, v.16

◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret Stonewalled 1931, v.18

◊◊◊◊ Maigret Meets a Milord 1931, v.16

◊◊◊ Maigret at the Crossroads 1931, v.18

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret Mystified 1932, v.18

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Chez Krull 1939, v.19

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Hotel Majestic 1942, v.15

◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Spinster 1942, v. 14

◊◊◊ Maigret in Exile 1942, v.17

◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Toy Village 1944, v.17

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Monsieur Monde Vanishes 1945, v.1

◊◊◊ Three Beds in Manhattan 1946, v.15

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Four Days in a Lifetime 1949 v.17

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Heart of a Man 1950, v.19

◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Gangsters 1952, v.12

◊◊◊ The Magician 1953, v.12

◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard 1953, v.13

◊◊◊◊◊ Big Bob, 1954, v.5

◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Minister, 1954, v.3

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Headless Corpse, 1955, v.4

◊◊◊◊◊ The Accomplices 1956, v.2

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Striptease 1958, v.19

◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Millionaires 1958, v.11

◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret Has Doubts 1958, v.3

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Widower 1959, v.19

◊◊◊◊ Teddy Bear 1960, v.8

◊◊◊ Betty 1961, v. 14

◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Black Sheep 1962, v. 14

◊◊◊ The Others 1962, v.13

◊◊◊ Maigret and the Dosser 1963, v.12

◊◊◊ Maigret and the Ghost 1964, v.15

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Man with the Little Dog 1964, v.4

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Little Saint 1965, v.4

◊◊◊ The Venice Train 1965, v.11

◊◊◊◊◊ The Patience of Maigret 1965, v.2

◊◊◊◊ The Confessional 1966, v.7

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Old Man Dies 1966, v.3

◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Nahour Case 1967, v.1

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Cat 1967, v.9

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret’s Pickpocket 1967, v.2

◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Neighbours 1967, v.1

◊◊◊◊ Maigret takes the Waters 1968, v.7

◊◊◊◊ The Prison 1968, v.6

◊◊◊◊ Maigret Hesitates 1968, v.8

◊◊◊◊◊ The Man on the Bench in the Barn 1968, v.10

◊◊◊◊ Maigret’s Boyhood Friend 1968, v.5

◊◊◊◊ November 1969, v.5

◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Killer 1969, v.7

◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Wine Merchant 1970, v.6

◊◊◊◊ The Rich Man 1970, v.6

◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Madwoman 1970, v.10

◊◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and the Loner 1971 v.13

◊◊◊◊ The Disappearance of Odile 1971, v. 9

◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Glass Cage 1971, v.10

◊◊◊ Maigret and the Flea 1971, v.8

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ The Innocents 1972, v.11

◊◊◊◊◊ Maigret and Monsieur Charles 1972, v.9

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


14 thoughts on “Reviewing Simenon

  1. Your statement “The very first novel, Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett, was one of the best Simenon wrote, possibly the best of all the Maigret stories.” stimulated me to read the book. This was my 85th Maigret, and I wish it had been my first, for it’s the best so far.

    The Maigret depicted here appears consistently throughout the series but he is more filled out: his enormity. His appetite. His drinking. His ever present pipe. His (exterior) indifference. His self-confidence. The interminable surveillance. The intuitive deduction. The affection for the criminal.

    Surrounding features common to the series are more intense here: the weather (storm, wind, rain, and wet) sustains the mood. There is more frequent onstage action, and it lasts longer. Small clues (a few hairs, some old photos) bring big returns. Maigret suffers more physically. The melodramatic plot is acceptable, even believable.

    A few things I like are lacking: there is less of the usual testy dialogue. Madame Maigret plays only the tiniest of roles. Collegial interplay is less prominent, save for Torrence, who is making his last appearance.

    All in all, thanks for the tip!

    “Pedigree” in time, perhaps.
    Colette writes well, but she mostly bores me.

    1. I agree with both your minuses and pluses for the book. I suppose Simenon didn’t know Maiget then as well as he was to later. And perhaps, just perhaps, he put more of himself into the writing. As for Colette, I agree with you there too. The only book I love is the anthology Earthly Paradise. If you read Pedigree and like it you might consider that one.

      On Wed, 01 May 2013 21:50:05 +1000, BestQuest

  2. I applaud your commentary on Simenon’s works and appreciate your ratings. Indeed, I’ve already ordered the French original of Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett simply because you describe it as “one of the best Simenon wrote, possibly the best of all the Maigret stories.” If I find Pedigree to be as good as you indicate (“Simenon’s greatest book in my opinion”), I’ll rely on your ratings to select additional reads.

    1. Thank you David. For my part I greatly appreciate ‘meeting’ someone with such a great love of Simenon’s writings. Something to be encouraged and valued! To give my ratings some perspective: This was just my second read of the titles reviewed. I had read them years before, and my first reaction was an emotional one, mainly at the plight of the character in each roman dur. I simply enjoyed the Maigrets. Second reading found me much more critical (indeed that was my intention of course) and I may have been more aware of Simenon’s (there’s a French phrase…) longueurs. The ‘good’ Maigrets reminded me of good thrillers, like Ian Fleming’s for instance (but much better written). My memories of Pedigree are mainly of its evocation of childhood. Another book that impressed me deeply in this regard was a Colette anthology called Earthly Paradise, compiled by Robert Phelps. It includes short excerpts from many of Colette’s works, but childhood is mainly from Sido, translated by Enid McLeod. (Among the other translators is Antonia White, who translated some of Simenon’s novels). This may encourage or deter you from reading Pedigree. I would appreciate your comments if you do so though.


      On Mon, 01 Apr 2013 22:49:07 +1100, BestQuest

  3. Maigret reminds me of Talleyrand. A supposed traitor to many of the regimes he served, but loyal to France. I read an anecdote about Talleyrand and Napoleon somewhere. Napoleon ostentatiously drops his handkerchief, leaving Talleyrand to ignore it and be rude, or be subservient and pick it up for him. But Talleyrand does neither. He drops his own handkerchief, besides Napoleon’s, then bends down and picks his own up, and continues with the conversation. You have to thoroughly know your man to get away with gestures like that. Maigret has his own concept of justice, and the knowledge of human nature to apply it surely.

  4. Doctor of souls! His interaction with Pardon! His attitude toward Mme Maigret! These themes intrigued me, too, in reading 84 Maigret stories, enough to stimulate my pastiche, Le Docteur Maigret. The English translation is Doctor Maigret. All three characters played major roles.

  5. Maigret is a strange kind of detective. He responds moodily, he hangs about soaking up atmosphere, he cannot function from behind a desk. What drives him (and Simenon) is an inexhaustible fascination with human nature. What will this person do, what is that one capable of? The best analogy is with a doctor, who must investigate lifestyle and emotional state as well as conduct tests on the body if they are to give a reliable diagnosis. Maigret is like a doctor of souls. His best friend could have been a parish priest, a Don Camillo or Father Brown. But it’s Doctor Pardon (note the name). The two men rarely talk about their respective cases, more about food and wine, but when they do, it’s more about the conclusions they’ve come to. They understand each other without talking, one definition of friendship. Maigret’s attitude to his wife is largely unexpressed. She is just there, to wake him and feed him. Yet I suspect he couldn’t go on without her.

  6. In your 2011 discussion of Maigret and the Nahour Case, you observe that Maigret’s mood is the dominating element in the stories, and I agree. It determines his behavior, and how he feels about people usually dictates how he interacts with them. I’ve not read this particular story, but if it says Doctor Pardon is his only friend, the 84 that I have read support this concept in spades. Indeed, he rarely even treats his wife like a friend. I believe his strong bond with Pardon stems primarily from the fact that, although Maigret left medical school and became a cop, he never let go of his doctor interests. Their monthly meetings are heavily medical. In fact, the dinner for doctors (a literal translation of “le dîner des toubibs”) is what those sessions are called.

  7. Below are some comments on the size of Simenon’s vocabulary (from a great Maigret site: ).

    “Simenon limited himself to a vocabulary of 2,000 words, acting on the advice of Colette, who warned him against writing ‘beautiful sentences’.”
    —Paul Bailey, introduction to the 2003 Penguin edition of Inspector Cadaver

    “[Simenon] had employed a vocabulary of 2,000 words, while admitting that he knew more for his personal use.”
    —Patrick Marnham, in The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret, (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, New York, 1993, p 2)

    “I asked Simenon: ‘Is it true that you have not used more than 2,000 words?” “That’s too many – he replied – I did not reach that figure. Besides, Racine only used 800.'”
    —Giulio Nascimbeni, 2003 Lunario article.

    “I have since the age of eighteen tried to have a style as simple as possible,” he told a French interviewer [Jean-Louise Egine] in February 1978 on the eve of his seventy-fifth birthday. “And that was for a reason: I once read a statistic that revealed that over half the people in France used no more than a total of 600 words. So what was the good of my using abstract words?”
    —Fenton Bresler, in The Mystery of Georges Simenon, (Beaufort Books, New York, 1983, p 2)

  8. The mind boggles at Hamlet: the mini-series. Almost as fearsome as Hollywood’s Hamlet 2. S is justly famous at evoking atmosphere and landscape. A sentence or two, and the reader is there, on the spot. Very much like a film. I’ve read somewhere S kept his prose concise for the same reason, ‘tree’ rather than ‘oak tree’ etc, allowing the reader to add salient details themselves, as they read. Homer calls Helen ‘the most beautiful woman’ in the same way. Also I think S’s landscapes are more readable because they evoke other senses than sight.

  9. In 2011, you wrote, “Reading a novel of Georges Simenon’s is more like watching a film than reading a book… …You can read a book at one sitting if you desire, just as you sit through a film.” Indeed, Simenon specifically indicated his readers should spend about the same amount of time reading one of his novels as they would watching a movie. He once said (my translation), “Novels, just like tragedies, should be read in an evening. Can you imagine watching Shakespeare, the first act, one evening, the second after a week, the third and fourth acts two weeks later? That’s unthinkable!… …That’s why my novels are short.”

  10. Here’s an example of the translation problem as I perceive it: Simenon would refer to automobile fuel as “essence” or perhaps “gaz.” The UK translation of “petrol” would sound equally foreign to an American, who would be much more comfortable with “gas.”

    I’d call the romans durs literature and the Maigrets stories. I’ve shied away from Pedigree because it’s autobiographical, but I have it in translation and will give it a try.

    I’m inclined to work forward from your May 2011 piece with a few comments.

  11. Your comments on language are interesting. I have read once or twice that some of the translations into English are poor. Some early translators took considerable liberties, and produced ‘versions’ rather than translations. Simenon was not pleased when this was pointed out. Perhaps English lacks the conciseness of French to portray the intensity of S’s physical response to environment, or his charting of subtle psychological states. I believe S’s greatest work is with the so-called roman dur, especially with the non crime Pedigree, but perhaps I am being snobbish here. The Maigrets are reassuring reading, as crime fiction tends to be, but they are outside jobs as it were, while the roman dur are inside ones. I am most interested to hear your comments about individual works.

  12. Like you, I’ve been rummaging through Simenon’s works in recent years, and having just come across this well-developed piece, I’d like to weigh in on a few subjects. I, too, didn’t want to read all his books and still don’t because I discovered, as you phrased it, that much of his work was mediocre.

    Since my sampling differs significantly from yours, my impressions will likely differ as well. I’m American and English is my first language, but the bulk of my Simenon reading has been in French. I believe his writing in French is better than the English translations I’ve read make it seem. Part of the problem may be that the translations were UK English, which doesn’t mesh well with US English and may not with AUS English, either.

    There are actually 175 Maigret novels and 28 short stories for a total of 103 works in the series. This figure doesn’t include the 4 novels some indicate were early Maigrets written under a pen name. I haven’t read those, but do have 84 Maigrets (and 21 non-Maigrets) under my belt.

    Indeed, I think it’s the series that is great. I’ve yet to read one story I could rave about all by itself, so I look forward to working through your comments on Simenon back to May 2011.

    That’s it for now, but I’ll be back. Thanks,

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