The return of Inspector Maigret


In an ambitious act of reinvention, Penguin has announced that it will reissue, in new translations, all 75 of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret mysteries -- some of the bleakest, and best, works ever produced in the genre. The first two are out already, including “Pietr the Latvian,” originally published in 1930, the earliest book to feature the iconic Paris police inspector.

Simenon, of course, was insanely prolific; in addition to his Maigret novels, he also produced 117 romans durs, or hard novels, which Luc Sante describes in a 2007 Bookforum essay as “punishing studies of human beings driven by circumstance and personality to the ends of their tethers” -- a total of 400-plus books in all.

The best of these (“Red Lights,” “Dirty Snow,” as well as a number of the Maigrets) unfold in a universe where morality is a luxury we can’t afford. Simenon lived his own life this way also: misanthropic, anti-Semitic, he collaborated with the Nazis during World War II and ultimately left France, first for the United States, and later for Switzerland, where he died in 1989.


He wrote fast and with assurance; in 1929 alone, he published 34 books. His process was industrial; he could crank out a novel in 11 days.

“I write a chapter each day,” he explained in a 1955 Paris Review interview, “without ever missing a day. … And it’s almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons my novels are so short. … I have to -- it’s physical. I am too tired.”

It’s a ruthless way of writing, and yet, it gives his novels their immediacy.

The Maigret novels are not police procedurals in any classic sense; their detective does little detecting, as it were. Rather, he hangs around, eating and drinking, observing, pushing his suspects to reveal themselves.

“Pietr the Latvian” grows out of just such a method -- although no one is arrested, it’s no stretch to say that, in an odd way, justice is served. At the center of the novel is an implacable portrait of a universe that is at best amoral and at worst, actively malevolent.

The same might be said of Maigret, whom Simenon describes as “a hostile presence. … He had a way of imposing himself, just by standing there. His assertive presence had often irked many of his own colleagues.”

This is no wisecracking sleuth, no Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, living by an outsider’s code. For Maigret -- often silent, often surly -- ethics have little to do with it; he is only interested in the outcome.

“Pietr the Latvian” is not one of Simenon’s great books; this early in his career (he was 27 when it was published), he was still feeling his way toward a defining vision, what we might call a kind of existential ambivalence. All the same, it has its moments, and is compelling as a starting point.

Like many of Simenon’s novels, it exhibits a ferocious clarity, a refusal to sugarcoat this bitter pill of a world.

“Writing,” he told the Paris Review, “is considered a profession, and I don’t think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy.”


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