I have read three of the Maigret novels of Georges Simenon over the past week. I was well aware of Simenon’s reputation as a crime novelist but had never read any of his work before; it is definitely a case of better late than never.
Penguin are publishing all 75 Maigret novels at the rate of one a month over a period of several years. I have now read the first of the series, Pietr the Latvian, published in 1929, and two others – The Yellow Dog and The Hanged Man of St Pholien. Anyone in search of an “easy read” should certainly consider these novels. They are very short and can easily be read in a single sitting. Plots are relatively straightforward and the stories are very evocative of France in the 1930s. They are fast paced and a pleasure to read.
But the novels also have a number of special qualities that fully justify Simenon’s reputation. Inspector Maigret in particular is a fascinating character, a solid decent man who gradually solves his cases, often after numerous people have been despatched. We learn a great deal about his tastes in food, drink and clothing, his home life, his attentive wife and his many colleagues. Simenon is also very sensitive to place and atmosphere – in Paris and and its environs, as well as small French seaside towns like Concarneau and Fecamp. He constantly refers to the weather, whether it is heavy rain or an early summer day. Maigret frequently opens a window and drinks in the fresh air. There is also a good deal of period detail in his description of settings, from luxury hotels in the Champs Elysees to gritty seaside bars and seedy hotels in the Marais, trams and cars requiring frequent servicing.
Each novel boasts a host of characters in addition to Maigret, his wife and colleagues, often including hardened criminals acting on their own or as members of gangs, together with their “molls” and other hangers on. Despite his generally hardboiled nature, Maigret displays considerable compassion towards many of these people.
Based on my admittedly limited exposure to the series so far, there appears to be a pattern in the way the mystery is resolved, with the pieces gradually falling into place, and the drama finally being resolved, almost despite Maigret’s efforts.
I have found a very good review of the series by Julian Barnes in the TLS, available free on line: