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The Belgian who wasn’t Poirot: Georges Simenon and Inspector Maigret

A prolific author and his charmingly vivid detective.

georges simenon and inspector maigret
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  • Photo Credit: "Maigret and Monsieur Charles" by Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon’s great French detective, Inspector Maigret, never runs when he can plod. Slow and patient, his approach to life is a stark contrast to the whirlwind style of his creator.

Considering Georges Simenon was a man of letters, numbers feature a heck of a lot in summaries of his life. He was born in Liege in Southern Belgium in 1903, and in a 51 year period from 1921 to 1972 he wrote 193 novels in his own name, with at least 200 others under roughly 18 pseudonyms. 75 of these novels featured his most celebrated creation, Inspector Jules Maigret. On top of all this, he also produced 25 volumes of autobiography, 3 volumes of collected journalism, 4 collections of short stories, and more than a thousand more short stories that were never collected. His books have been translated into 87 languages and registered sales of around $850 million. His novels have been made into 55 movies and 279 television shows. Maigret has been played on screen by 19 different actors.

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Simenon wrote for 6 hours every day, during which he smoked 6 pipes of tobacco, drank 2 bottles of red wine, and rattled off 10 thousand words. Most of his novels were written in 11 days. The Maigret books took 9. He never wrote fewer than 6 books per year, and during his most productive phase at the end of the 1920s he sometimes topped 40. There's little wonder contemporary critics nicknamed him “The Steamship Novelist.”

Simenon skipped Liege for Paris when he was 19. He spent a couple of years living on a sailing boat, moved house 33 times, lived in 5 different countries, and visited over a hundred more. He married twice and had 4 children. At the height of his fame, he occupied a 30-room mansion on the shores of Lake Geneva, where he employed 11 servants. He died in 1989, aged 86.

In the storm of figures that surrounds Georges Simenon, the one that sticks in most people’s minds is 10 thousand. This is the number of women he claimed to have slept with between the age of 13 and 73. He made the announcement on a TV chat show in 1977, apparently nettled by his fellow guest, the Italian film director Federico Fellini, who was boasting of his own amorous exploits. Later, Simenon’s second wife, Denise, would ridicule her husband’s claims. She told the press he was exaggerating and the number was surely no more than 1,200. 

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All these statistics wouldn’t matter much if Simenon had written a load of garbage. The amazing thing is that, despite the pace of creation, his work is of exceptionally high quality. His novels were praised by literary heavyweights such as T.S Eliot and Francois Mauriac. Andre Gide said that Simenon was “The greatest French speaking novelist of the twentieth century,” and suggested that he should be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. William Faulkner compared him to Chekov.

Though Simenon regarded his Maigret books as less important than more serious works such as The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, he retained a great affection for the philosophical policeman from the Loire valley. After all, Maigret had helped fund his lavish, globetrotting lifestyle.

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The notion of the detective from the Paris Brigade Criminelle had popped into Simenon’s head one afternoon in 1930 when he was sitting in a café by a canal in the Dutch town of Delftzijl. “A large, powerfully built gentleman…a pipe, a bowler hat and a thick overcoat”. There has been a lot of speculation about who might have inspired Maigret—a real life French detective, the author’s father—but the descriptions sounds quite a lot like Simenon himself.

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  • Photo Credit: A&T Film Production

Whatever his origins, Maigret pounced on his creator like a fever. In 1931, he featured in 10 novels starting with Pietr the Latvian. In 1932, another 7. The novels were written in such a fury that when he’d finished one, Simenon would vomit like an athlete at the end of a marathon.

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After this initial frenzy, Simenon decided he’d had enough of the gruff and eternally patient policeman. He sent him into rural retirement in 1934. But Maigret wasn’t content with village life, and he returned in 1940. Partly this was because Simenon needed the money, but also because he missed his alter-ego, and, in particular, the simple home life he’d created for him.

Unlike his British contemporaries—Christie, Allingham, and Sayers—there’s nothing cozy in the criminal world of Maigret. It’s a bleak and bitter place of love affairs turned sour, fractured families, lust, jealousy, and vengeance. The Inspector’s world has more in common with that of Sam Spade than his Belgian counterpart, Hercule Poirot.

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By contrast, the inspector’s home life is sunny and charming.  Maigret lives in an apartment on the tree-lined Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, near Bastille in central Paris. His wife, Louise, is a calm, smiling presence. She’s also one of the best cooks in all of crime fiction. After a day of probing the dark entrails of the criminal underworld, Maigret returns home to find Louise shelling peas or rustling up a chicken fricassee. Few fictional detectives have such a contented domestic life. You sense it’s what Simenon would have liked for himself—if only he could have satisfied his own massive appetites with a leg of lamb and some parsley potatoes.

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  • Photo Credit: BBC

The appeal of the Maigret books is obvious, yet hard to pin down. The stories are essentially police procedurals. There’s little smarty-pants detective work. Maigret is usually pretty sure who the perpetrator is from the start. The policeman’s task is to prove it. Even when he does so to his own satisfaction, it isn’t always enough to get a conviction, or even an arrest. In Maigret, as in true crime, loose ends dangle. Simenon was proud of the fact that real policeman liked the books.

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The Inspector himself is nice to be around. He’s kind and philosophical, has immense stamina and boundless empathy. His approach to his work is summarized by his famous line: “I’m not judging you, I’m trying to understand.” 

The chief pleasure of the books is the setting. They’re written in simple, precise sentences (Simenon confined himself to a vocabulary of 2,000 words) that effortlessly convey atmosphere and place. Reading them is to be taken on a trip around France in general and Paris (the setting for 63 of the novels) in particular. 

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It’s quite a bar crawl. Maigret is a phenomenal drinker. His breakfast generally consists of a cup of coffee and a brandy, and his days stalking his quarry inevitably involve plenty of stops in street corner cafes where he perches at the zinc counter, drinks a beer, a calvados, a glass of wine, or some obscure French aperitif—Suze, bright yellow and bitter, is a particular favorite. These little scenes are so vivid you can almost smell the black tobacco and hear the rumbling voices of the regulars arguing about horse racing. 

In 1972, Simenon completed Maigret and Monsieur Charles. In it, the policeman is forced to make decisions about his future and opts to turn down a promotion. Simenon had just turned 70 and had made a momentous decision of his own: he was done with fiction. Though he’d carry on writing for more than a decade, this time Maigret was gone for good.