The Belgian novelist Georges Simenon was a monster. I’m not talking about his failures as a human being, which apparently included being a faithless husband, a wartime opportunist, and a problematic father. No, I mean, he was a monster in the sense that he worked like a beast. Over the course of his decades-long career, he published hundreds of novels and stories. The exact count of these published works is impossible to calculate because, starting out, Simenon toiled for years under various pen names, producing pulp by the truckload before finally affixing his name to The Strange Case of Peter the Lett in 1931.
In this novel, Simenon created a character that would change the course of his career: the French Inspector Jules Maigret. The brilliant, pipe-smoking detective was an immediate smash hit in France (and soon, all around the world). So the monster went into action, churning out 10 more Maigret novels in 1931. You read that correctly. It isn’t a typo. In the first year of producing Maigret adventures, Georges Simenon published 11 books. Maybe he took off December for the holidays.
Despite the public’s insatiable appetite for Maigret, however, Simenon yearned to do other things. He was happy to be a newly rich and famous mystery writer, but he also wanted respect. In 1934, he retired his famous detective (with a book simply titled Maigret) and started to produce “serious” novels at the same feverish pace he’d been producing potboilers.
These books, which Simenon called his roman durs (or hard novels), would indeed bring the writer the critical respect he craved. For crime fiction fans, these books are of great interest today because many of them are straight up noir novels. The greatest of them is probably 1946’s Dirty Snow (aka The Snow Was Dirty), the existential account of Frank Friedmaier, a smalltime thug in an occupied country who decides to kill a man for no reason at all. As society crumbles around him, Frank hurtles through a shadow world of theft, rape, and murder, leading to his own meaningless destruction. As raw and bleak as anything by James M. Cain or Jim Thompson, Dirty Snow is most often compared to Camus’s The Stranger—a comparison it deserves. (Favoring Simenon’s nasty achievement, the writer James Hynes once noted, “The Stranger sometimes reads like it was meant to be taught in high school French classes, but any high school teacher who taught Dirty Snow would lose his or her job.”)
Simenon’s great noir novels are among the best books of their kind. On a list with Dirty Snow, one would have to include classics like The Engagement of Monsieur Hire (1933), The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1938), The Widow (1942), and Red Lights (1953). Personally, I’ve always been partial to a relatively overlooked little book called The Widower (1959). And one can’t talk about the monster without mentioning the well-respected non-crime novels he wrote, like the autobiographical Pedigree (1948) and the sexual obsession chamber drama Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (1945).
All of this was well and good, but a man can’t live on critical respect (and correspondingly respectable sales) alone—especially if that man wants to live large, which Simenon certainly did. So in the early ‘40s, Inspector Maigret emerged from his forced retirement with a round of new adventures: Maigret in Exile, The Hotel Majestic, and Cecile is Dead. The publication dates of these books are jumbled because France had fallen to Germany by this time. The German occupation would mar Simenon’s reputation in later years. While he was not a collaborator with the Nazis nor was he a resister, preferring to keep his head down and write his books and live his life in relative comfort while the world went to hell. The snow was dirty, indeed.
As the war ended, though, the public rediscovered its love of Inspector Maigret, and Simenon began publishing new adventures at the rate of two or three a year (in addition to one or two roman durs). Maigret’s return drew inevitable comparisons to the death and resurrection of Sherlock Holmes, and indeed like Doyle before him, Simenon really only brought back his most beloved character because it meant guaranteed sales.
So the monster went into action, churning out 10 more Maigret novels in 1931. You read that correctly. It isn’t a typo. In the first year of producing Maigret adventures, Georges Simenon published 11 books.
Of course, there was a good reason the public loved Holmes and Maigret both. Like Doyle, Simenon knew how to endlessly create new adventures for his detective that pulled readers in from the first page and sped them along a journey of back alleys and darkened streets only to deposit them at a satisfying conclusion. Maigret’s Paris is as welcoming a place as Holmes’s London.
And Maigret himself is always good company. Like Holmes or Hercule Poirot, he is brilliant and well respected. He is capable of handling himself in moments of violence, though those moments are rare. In fact, a defining characteristic of the Maigret novels is a certain warmth. Unlike the cold loners who usually populate detective novels, Maigret is happily married (to “Madame Maigret,” of course). He doesn’t have his creator’s wandering eye or his questionable ethics. He’s a loving husband and a good man, honest and fair. He is also, of all things, a humanist. Not in the metaphysical sense but on a practical level. He’s not a living CSI computer like Holmes nor a puzzle solver like Poirot. He understands people, and these insights usually lead him to his solutions. Like any great series character, he becomes a faithful reader’s old friend.
Penguin books recently began the process of reissuing the complete Maigret series: 76 novels and 28 short stories. To mark the return of the great detective, in the weeks to come I’ll be revisiting some of Maigret’s greatest cases. Of course, with a series of such volume, there’s bound to be disagreement among fans about which books comprise “the best” in the series, so let’s just call this my own highly subjective list of favorites. I’d love to hear from Maigret fans new and old about what you consider the best of the best.
Here, then, is a brief introduction to the books we’ll be revisiting as we return to Maigret’s world:
aka Maigret at the Crossroads
Maigret investigates the murder of a diamond merchant just outside of Paris at a foggy junction called Three Widows’ Crossroads. His main suspects are a creepy brother and sister duo who seem a little too close…
aka Maigret Answers a Plea
Maigret is on holiday when a friend asks him to look into the murder of a ship’s captain in a nearby port city. What happened on the ship’s fateful last voyage?
Maigret's Dead Man (Inspector Maigret #29, 1948)
aka Maigret’s Special Murder
One day, a panicked man calls Maigret from several different cafes claiming that he’s being followed. The calls stop as suddenly as they began. Then, the man is found stabbed to death…
My Friend Maigret (Inspector Maigret #31, 1949)
aka The Methods of Maigret
While an inspector from Scotland Yard is visiting Maigret to study his methods, Maigret investigates a murder in the south of France. The investigation leads Maigret and his new friend to an island bathed in sun and secrets.
aka Maigret and The Killers
Maigret gets a frantic call from the wife of an unpopular fellow inspector reporting that her husband has disappeared. Maigret’s search for the missing policeman leads him to a gang of American mobsters.
Maigret and the Headless Corpse (Inspector Maigret #47, 1955)
Maigret investigates the sudden appearance of a dismembered man at the bottom of the Saint-Martin Canal in Paris…
Jake Hinkson is the author of several books, including the novel No Tomorrow and the essay collection The Blind Alley: Exploring Film Noir's Forgotten Corners.