Some things about Simenon and Maigret before we get started. Georges Simenon was a Belgian/French novelist who is credited with some four hundred or so novels and other books. That’s a lot. Many many of his books are very short (100-150) pages and about 80 of them are mysteries about the French inspector Maigret. But that leaves the most of his books not being about him. He’s also credited as the 6th best selling writer of all time, which to me is insane. The list, if you’re interested is: Shakespeare at 4 billion sales, Agatha Christie at 4 billion sales, then Barbara Cartland (?), Danielle Steel, and Harold Robbins. Then comes Simenon at 6th with 700 million sales. For reference, Stephen King is 22nd with 350 million sales. Simenon is also the 17th most translated writer ever with Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, and Shakespeare sitting at the top three, and the most translated Belgian author ever.
So all of this is to say that I had never heard of him until about 4 or 5 years ago when the New York Review of Books started republishing several of his novels — about a dozen or so, and I don’t think any of the Maigret books. So I started collecting them as I found them in little free libraries and any of the other places you find free books. Because there’s so many of them (80! of the Maigret alone) I have hesitant to actually put any money down. As of now I have read about 1/10 of the Maigret books and many many of them are available in translation, and the one non-Maigret book, which leaves me with just 300 or so left to go!
The funniest moment of any of the books involves Maigret getting annoyed that Dutch professors have different theories about policework.
“‘Excuse me! You were speaking, I think, of crime. What was the exact subject?’
‘The resonsibility of criminals for their actions.’
‘And you were maintaining…?’
‘That is is really society itself which is responsible for all the faults of its members, including those faults that go by the name of crime…Life is organized for the best possible welfare of everybody…We have created social classes, and it is essential that every individual should be properly brought up to take his place in one of them…’
He stared at the green cloth covering the table as he spoke. His voice was faint and lacked all authority.
‘That’s enough,’ groaned Maigret. ‘I know that story: ‘There are some individuals who for one reason or another cannot fit into any social class. They are fundamentally unadaptable, or, if you prefer it, diseased. It is they who provide what we call criminals and must therefore be places in a class of their own.’ …Something of that sort, wasn’t it? We’ve heard it many times before….Conclusion: ‘Do away with prisons and build more hospitals.’
The professor’s only answer was a sulky look.”
That more or less tells you who he is: a competent police investigator, and little else.
Pietr the Latvian – 4/5 Stars
So part of each of these review will have to be some discussion on the titles, and the translations. This edition of this book, the one I had, put three of the first five of the books into a single edition, also translated the titles into very bizarre and atonal versions of the rest of the books. What I mean is that the translations are perfectly fine, but the titles are odd or bad. It changes what the books seem to be doing tone-wise and it maybe contributed to why I held onto this book for a few years before finally starting it. This collection started with Book 2, then went on to Book 4, and then back to Book 1 — although that’s not clear because many of these were all published in the same fell swoop, so it’s hard to differentiate them in that one year.
But I do think this book works best as a first book, because it begins with Maigret very carefully listening to a report of a train approaching a station and calculating when it will pull into the terminal. The report also includes a very specific description of a suspect, including a “scientific” sounding report on his ear shape. This sets up Maigret as a calculating figure who works precisely. When the train arrives, Maigret and his colleagues storm the train and find the suspect dead in a bathroom. Cramped into the bathroom with the corpse, Maigret attempts to analyze the shape of the man’s ear. All of this occurs before we even know the crime and the “case”. We learn this next as it turns out “Pietr the Lett” is seen in a restaurant the following day.
So this book is about mistaken and hidden identity, and it sets up Maigret as a calculating and mostly humorless police inspector. He does police work, and much of that includes interrogation and investigation, and not always “solving” crimes. He is not Sherlock Holmes, and despite being Belgian, he is not very much like Hercule Poirot. He’s constantly smoking a pipe, he’s got a large body, he’s married, but his wife almost never comes up, and he’s in the “Flying Squad” – ie to travel all over the country to solve serious crimes.
For me, this seems like a clear influence on the Jo Nesbo novel “Nemesis”.
The Carter of “La Providence” – 4/5 Stars
Again, we are dealing with some odd translation choices. In this book, we deal with one of my favorite things detective novels do, require the investigator to become a quick expert in an odd field. So this book is all about the shipping and cargo lanes and lines in a port city. It involves understanding where a body might have started in the water in order to find out where it might have ended up, and how the different boats, locks, channels, etc all come together. And so what does Penguin books call it in 1960? “Maigret Meets a Milord”! Which is patently ridiculous. Why did they do this? Because one of the murder victims is British and there’s a British inspector involved.
Anyway, what is more interesting of course is that the international aspect of the case is the most interesting part. Yes it matters that there’s a British investigator here, but he plays such a small role. The title of this translation is much more informative and a direct translation of the French title.
This one most makes me think of Season Two of “The Wire”.
The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien – 4/5 Stars
I will tell you that this book starts with a very alarming suicide scene. And from the very beginning, there’s almost no crime (in the classic sense) here. A man walks into a station and shoots himself in the head. There’s no real explanation given and his circumstances seem quite confusing once again. From here comes a really fascinating investigations into the other movements of the man leading up to this opening scene.
For me, the only confusing part is the absolutely confounding and ridiculous title given the early British translation: Maigret and the One Hundred Gibbets.
Like Maigret Meets a Milord, this title gives the worst possible interpretation of the tone of this novel. This novel is relatively serious, and Maigret is not very funny or charming — he’s competent. So to give it this odd title and publish it alongside the other book gives it the wrong feel.
Even the first novel, Pietr the Lett, is given a weird sense of being a kind of Tintin book or Zweig, and not a kind of boiled police procedural.
This is also the first of the series that makes it’s very clear we are dealing with a series that will likely contain a lot of novels and not the slow-burning metanarrative of a detective (ala Cormoran Strike).
The Late Monsieur Gallet – 4/5 Stars
This novel opens with a funny description of Maigret being caught in a hotel room in a corpse and “spending several weeks” with it. We are presented with another mystery in a man of what was supposed to be a kind of known set of factors dies mysteriously away from home and when he does, more and more truths and secrets come out. Maigret is sent to tell the man’s wife that her husband has been killed away from town. This comes as a surprise to her because though he travels often — he’s a travelling salesman — he wasn’t supposed to be where they found him. This also leads her to some additional alarm that perhaps they are telling her that her son, who shares a name with her husband, is in fact the one who has died.
The novel then goes into one of the more interesting aspects of early 20th century continental Europe, that despite modernization and modern technology, features such as identity and someone’s daily life might be sussed out by a series of clues, but is still dependent on a shared trust, so that someone who wants to hide themselves in plain sight or lie about who they are (very American themes) can just do it.
This is also the first of the novels in which class plays a primary role.
A Man’s Head – 5/5 Stars
Of the one’s I read, this was my favorite. It’s funny because it’s also the one with the most mixed of reviews comparatively. It begins with a really beautifully cinematic scene in which a imprisoned man is given a note saying that his cell will be opened at a set time on a set date and that he should make his way out of the prison. As he’s leaving we are told that Maigret and his colleagues are in the vicinity waiting for him to leave and make his way out. They analyze his every move and question whether these are the actions of an innocent man or not.
We later learn that this prisoner was on the night before his planned execution, and he had been convicted of the murder of a rich woman and her maid some six months, a case that Maigret investigated and for which he remains in doubt about the truth.
So this escape is a planned attempt to allow the man to prove his own innocence or shed light on the truth. And Maigret has stakes his career and reputation on it. This leads us back to the scene of the crime puts us in line with Zadek, an Eastern European medical student who fancies himself a criminal genius, acting in plain sight and taunting Maigret at every turn.
This is a patently ridiculous novel, and I loved it. It’s the first of these that makes me want to look into the filmed versions of the Simenon novels. And it turns out there’s tons of them!
There’s 1932 version of this book that has to be bad, but there’s a 1990s Belgian tv episode that must be worse!
There’s also a tv show (no episode for this novel though) starring Michael Gambon that I bet used to be on PBS.
There’s also a French tv show that ran from the late 1960s through the 1990s, ala Columbo.
And finally (there’s lots I am skipping) there’s a new series of films starring Rowan Atkinson from 2016 that I KNOW I will be able to find.
A Crime in Holland – 3/5 Stars
Ok, so this is the first one I was kind of disappointed in. It still had lots of good in it, and is still very much a Maigret novel, but it reminds me of a weird cross-over novel. This one takes places in the Netherlands, as you could have guessed, and involves the murder of a ship’s captain who also worked as a maritime professor.
What this most made me think about though are those kinds of tv show episodes where like Scooby Doo is working with the Harlem Globetrotters. That’s not to say that Maigret is working with Sherlock Holmes or anything goofy like that, but that there’s not a clear reason or justification for him being in Holland. And in being so, he’s a little too close to Poirot in this way — clearly out of his element, fish out of water. And it’s less good as a result.
The Night at the Crossroads – 3/5 Stars
This is another one that was less good than some of the previous ones and suggested to me that it was maybe time to take a break from so much Maigret for a little while. There’s a small crossroads village where there’s been a murder involving a car and maybe smuggling and a pair of Scandinavian siblings and cars!
I kid you not that there’s an Italian race car driving smuggler named Guido Ferrari. I figure this was time for a break. But I will give you some sense of the writing in this one. There’s a funny moment that reminded me of my cat. Maigret is holding the younger sister of the Danish couple at bay and he asks her to calm down:
“She turned around, breathing a touch too heavily, her forehead slightly damp.
‘I don’t know why I bothered to dress myself up!’ she remarked sarcastically, point out a tear in her dress.
‘Will you promise me you won’t try again to escape?’
“‘ How can I explain…We left Denmark as paupers, but my brother was convinced that, with his education, he would find a brilliant position in Paris..He did not. And became even more distressingly strange. When he resolved to bury us out here, I understoof that he was seriously ill. Especially as he insisted on lokcing me in my bedroom every night under the pretext that enemies might attack us! You can imagine my situation, imprisoned within these walls, unable to escape in case of fire, for example, or any other catastrophe…I couldn’t sleep! I was as franctic as if I’d been underground in a tunnel…”
The Cellars of the Majestic – 5/5 Stars
This is the richest of the novels that I’ve read so far in this series, and that’s for a few key reasons. For one, the plot is very good. A woman is found murdered in the bowels of the Majestic hotel. Investigating the murder reveals an underworld kind of system at work in the hotel. This is great because hotel novels were all the rage in the 1920s and 1930s anyway, but often didn’t really explore the underclass. Think about how well Gosford Park and later Downton Abbey balance their narrative. Two, the narrative perspective really works in this one too, because for long period of the novel we leave Maigret (most of the novels are tied very closely to his perspective), and moving away from him gives him time to work in the background while we get to experience a different flavor. This is very similar to how The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder at the Vicarage are ABOUT Poirot and Miss Marple, but are told from a different character’s perspective (I know most of their novels are third person, I just mean they move away from the lead characters). And so the result here is a more richly told story. Three, this novel is just good. It’s very similar to later novels by Patrick Hamilton in discussing service class workers. Four, there’s American characters being lampooned throughout and as an American, it cracks me up to see stereotypes thrown at us. I am always amused by how non-Americans describe us, and especially when we’re not committing atrocities in the process. One American is described as having a big healthy face of a baseball player, and it cracked me up.
Here’s some quotes:
“A RICH AMERICAN WOMAN STRANGLED IN THE BASEMENT OF THE MAJESTIC
The headline ran across the front page of the evening paper of the day before. To journalists, of course, all American women are always rich. But Maigret’s smile broadened on seeing a photograph of himself, in his overcoat and bowler hat, and with his pipe in his mouth, looking down at something which wasn’t shown in the picture.”
Maigret and the Man on the Bench – 5/5 Stars
This novel also begins with some incredibly odd choices about translation. The French title is so clearly “The Man on the Bench” or more specifically “Maigret and the Man on the Bench” – this marks among other things the trend of the further novels placing Maigret at the center of the title. The 1960s English translation of this confirms this choice, but my copy from 15 years ago calls it “The Man on the Boulevard”. Anyway, this is the longest by far of the ones I’ve read and according to the research I’ve made, there’s very short ones of about 100 pages, medium ones of about 150 and then “long” ones at about 190-215 pages. This one is 215 in my copy and 190 in a different. What happens with this additional 40 pages? Well Maigret takes the mystery more to heart and identifies with a number of the choices the victim made before he died and this shows up in his behavior. In addition, his wife plays a more present role in this one. That’s not to say so much that she plays a bigger role–she’s still very much characterized by her wifeliness–but she is a larger part of the story itself.
I also really liked this one and the curiosities presented in crime scene very slowly and satisfyingly come to light.
The Confessional – 4/5 Stars
So this is the only of the novels I happened to have come across/gathered in my time by Simenon that was not one of the Maigret mysteries. This is a family novel or perhaps a kind of coming of age novel (it’s hard to call it exactly this because the whole of it takes place in a few weeks), that was published in 1966. Because of a few factors, it’s very different from the Maigret novels. One, obviously, it’s not a mystery. There’s a small amount of tension that grows throughout the novel, but it’s subtle and while the tension is real and painful in its own right, that smallness and difference from the mysteries is real. And of course, as no one gets murdered in this novel, the tension is less explosive. The Maigret novels are designed to unlock the hidden clues mysteries have once we’re upon them. Maigret does not really care what motivates killers outside of how those motivations are part of a set of knowable facts that help him to solve the crimes.
Two, this novel is much more recent than the first six or so of the novels in this review. Simenon was 28 or so when the first of the novels were published, and he’s in his 60s for this one. That difference comes through.
Three, this novel is about a family and especially about youth.
So this novel is about Andre Bar, a young student living in Nice and studying for his matriculation exams. They are coming up in a few weeks, and while he’s studying a lot, he’s also recently become acquainted with Francine, the daughter of a couple who are friends with his father (both his father and her father are doctors). Francine and Andre go on a few dates and what becomes clear is that Andre has a normal set of problems, and is more or less handling them ok, but they are growing in their ways and he’s being asked to take on too much at home. The problem are large, by an objective accounting, and his father is mostly able to keep them from Andre, but what is occurring is that his mother is asking Andre to take on a lot of the stress she’s feeling personally, and be the confessional of the title of the novel, and his father, while trying to shield Andre from this, is doing the same thing himself. This is a smallish and conservative take on a lot of contemporary novels, where the author might feel the need to artificially inject additional stress or drama into the situation, which might make it more exciting, but would also make it more extraordinary. This is a decidedly ordinary story.