Throughout her mystery novels, contemporary writer Louise Penny showcases the much-admired Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. This character—shrewd, but calm and kindly—relies on psychology to solve crimes in and around the fictional Canadian village of Three Pines. When readers compared her works to Agatha Christie, Penny claimed that “a closer fit” would be with Georges Simenon (1903-1989). After all, both set their books in Francophone areas and fashioned lead detectives with similar personalities and techniques. Here we will take a look at Simenon, one of the most popular, highest-earning novelists of the twentieth century.
Born in Liège to middle-class Belgian parents, three-year-old Georges started reading in nursery school. By age eleven he was writing in notebooks and later composing poems. During his youth, he read widely, devouring works by Dumas, Dickens, and Balzac, among others. School, however, was a different matter. Although excelling in French, Simenon did poorly in other subjects and rebelled against discipline. At fifteen, using his father’s health as pretext, he quit school and soon landed a job as a cub reporter for the Gazette de Liège.
Working at the right-wing newspaper, Simenon learned the art of quick editing and demonstrated a manic work ethic. Churning out three to seven stories per day, he published opinion pieces, a gossip column, and some of his own short fiction. More importantly, articles he wrote on actual police investigations exposed the teenager to the darker side of life. He further explored law enforcement methods through a course in forensic science at the local university. In addition to writing for his job, the frenetic young author sent stories to French newspapers and self-published his first novel, often using pseudonyms such as “Monsieur le Coq” or “Georges Sim.”
The death of his beloved father coupled with a strained relationship with his mother prompted nineteen-year-old Simenon to head for the French capital in December 1922. After returning home briefly the following March to marry his first wife Tigy, he continued writing while taking a series of odd jobs in Paris. Contacts with two established authors would play a vital part in his future career. Submitting pieces to Le Matin, Simenon got advice about simplifying wording and descriptions from Colette, the newspaper’s literary editor: “Get rid of all of the literature and you’ve got it.” Then in 1930 Joseph Kessel asked him to write a mystery story for the magazine Détective which led to the creation one of the best-known characters in detective fiction, Commissaire Jules Maigret.
Simenon went on to compose 75 novels starring this character who was based, at least in part, upon his own father. As head of the homicide police, the middle-aged, pipe-smoking Maigret exhibits a calm, compassionate attitude toward victims and criminals alike as well as an interest in their environment and mindset. In books like Maigret Sets a Trap the commissioner’s intuitive insights into human psychology, rather than the plot, take center stage. Composed in a minimalistic style, the resulting stories are engaging, witty, and at times even poetic. Local color transports the reader into the culture of Paris highlighting its cuisine, bistros, and nightclubs. Yet Simenon’s frenetic output—at peak producing 80 pages a day and completing a novel within two weeks’ time—caused his work to suffer in spots from inconsistencies.
Even though he became famous and wealthy through his Maigret series—which was translated into 55 languages and adapted into feature films and TV movies— Simenon felt that mysteries were only “quasi-literary.” So, from around 1933 to 1940, he “retired” Maigret to dedicate himself to what he called his romans durs (“serious novels”). These 117 psychological thrillers like Dirty Snow received critical acclaim. Nobelist André Gide, in fact, described Simenon as “perhaps the greatest and most authentic novelist we have in French literature today.” Angered and highly disappointed at losing the Nobel Prize for Literature to Albert Camus in 1957, Simenon refocused his attention on his lucrative Maigrets.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, the frenzied excesses of Simenon’s writing methods found parallels in the private sphere. As well as passions for food, alcohol, fame, and money, he was wildly promiscuous. One scholar appropriately entitled a biography of Simenon The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret. For while his honorable fictional detective is happily devoted to his wife, the twice-married author was continually unfaithful. Be it with family housekeepers, Josephine Baker, prostitutes, or one-night-stands he met in bars. At one point he claimed to have made over 10,000 conquests which was later retracted to a more modest 1,200. In a revealing misogynistic comment, he stated that “sex is the only possible form of communication with women.”
Besides the literary world he created, Simenon had such intense compulsions in his work habits and personal life that they seem practically fictitious themselves. The upside of his frantic approach to writing is that his volumes of memoirs, short stories, and a staggering 393 novels sold over 500 million copies during his fifty-three-year career. And the best of his opus continues to attract readers worldwide. Read more about Simenon as well as Josephine Baker, Colette Camus, Joseph Kessel, and Gide in my Cheapo Snob series about Paris.1 comment