It may seem new that foreign crime writers dominate book sales charts with Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Fred Vargas – but it was the same 80 years ago when Georges Simenon wrote his first Maigret novels.
Unravelling crimes across France, Simenon’s pipe-smoking, harddrinking Inspector Jules Amédée Maigret has been translated into more than 50 languages, published in 55 countries and sold 800million books worldwide.
Now Penguin has undertaken a mammoth task, to republish all 75 of his Maigret novels at the rate of one a month.
The project, which last month saw The Madman of Bergerac released, has been running for more than a year and has just produced a first “omnibus” edition of four novels.
Next month French publishers Places des Editeurs release a Maigret volume, illustrated by Loustal, and the Bibliothèque des Littératures Policières in Paris is featuring works by Simenon and Loustal in an exhibition that runs until the end of this month.
It can only add to Simenon’s phenomenal record as he trails only Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel and Harold Robbins for global sales with double those of the Harry Potter novels.
Yet the most translated French speaking author of the 20th century is not French: Born in Liège in 1903 he is the world’s most famous Belgian.
Those who have not read his books know dozens of films and TV adaptations, including the 1960-63 Rupert Davies series and Michael Gambon in 1992-93, with word of a new TV series being prepared at the moment.
His intensely atmospheric yet deceptively simple books are perfect for the tabloid generation – Simenon said he used no more than 2,000 words – and are manna for film and TV producers.
Gritty, tightly-written and direct, the characters are so real they translate right on to the scriptwriter’s storyboard as the reader is carried on by the desire to know more. This is not Sherlock Holmes deducing events from unknown clues or the keep-youguessing of Agatha Christie’s Poirot; Maigret is more direct, concerned with the psychology of the criminal – the why, not the who.
La France profonde springs from the page in all its rain-sodden Depression bleakness and Maigret heralded an era of crime writing that felt true to life.
Simenon cared little for conventional morality saying “there are no criminals” and that they were often less guilty than their victims but he added that his outlook on crime came from his teens in occupied Liège during the First World War: “We were taught to cheat and defraud and lie.”
Involved in black-marketeering, he narrowly avoided serious crime and joined La Gazette de Liège as a reporter – called Georges Sim – and studied the new forensic science. But it was his mastery of the psychology of both detective and criminal that underpinned his Maigret.
The detective said his methods were based on watching for cracks in the criminal facade: he watched for “the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent”.
The books were written at a phenomenal pace, often at one a week with Maigret being only a fraction of Simenon’s output – just 77 novels out of more than 400 but by far the most popular and still as readable today.
He bitterly resented that his “romans durs” serious novels such as Dirty Snow and Monsieur Monde Vanishes were not seen as literature and said “Maigret has done me much harm”.
It was not until 2003, years after his death in 1989, that he was recognised when publishers La Pléiade put together Maigret and other novels for a prestigious reference collection.
His chaotic life – he was an alcoholic and claimed to have bedded 10,000 women and shared his house with his wife, son and two mistresses – made his lifestyle as well-known as his writing: which should make him possible material for a film in itself.
Maigret in brief
AFTER Simenon wrote his 19th Maigret novel in 1934 he got tired and retired him off – ironically, the book was published in Britain as Maigret Returns. He returned six years later after Simenon had written the romans durs he preferred.
SEVEN-times Oscar nominated director Mike Leigh got his first credited acting role as a deaf mute in an episode of the 1960s Maigret TV series.
IN THE first Maigret book, Pietr the Latvian, Maigret’s trusted colleague Detective Torrence is murdered – but he was too good to stay dead and returned in later novels.
ACTOR Rupert Davies, who played Maigret in the 1960s TV series, bought the 1954 Citroën Light 15/6H Traction Avant that featured in the show. To many viewers it was the Maigret car. The present owner has put it up for sale in the UK.
MAIGRET lived on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, which came tragically to the fore last month as the street where police officer Ahmed Merabet was shot and killed by the Charlie Hebdo terrorists.