Georges Simenon – An Appreciation of Style, Part 2

I am sure some of you are wondering whether this discussion on words and tone is relevant to your reading enjoyment, and perhaps you are asking: “Why bring this up? It’s the plot that matters.” And to that, I agree. But first, let us look at how Mr. Simenon uses plot in his novels. I was drawn to his stories because of his unique approach, one that uses the detective format to tell a story, not about the detective, but about the characters. In his stories, we have two major participants: the murderer and the victim. As Maigret is quoted: “I will know the murderer when I know the victim well” (qtd in Bresler 79), and so he begins to tell us about the victim. As Mr. Bresler explains:

   His role from the very start, unlike that of his greatest English rival, Sherlock
   Holmes, is not to reason, but to understand intuitively the mainsprings of human
   activity so that he arrives at a complete comprehension of how, and why, the
   victim and the murderer have behaved as they have done (79).

The author uses this technique as a sort of “rope” to tell the story. He quotes Mr. Simenon:

   “If one chapter is bad, people will go through the book anyway because they
   like to know the end. And equally you have a rope – the detective is a kind
   of rope, so you follow him. And because he is a detective he has the right to
   ask questions of people. He has the right to enter their houses” (Bresler 65-66).

And it is through this method that we are introduced to the characters and the story surrounding their circumstances, those of the murderer’s and those of the victim’s, the type of life they lived and how they got to such a state in which we are reading about. And it is this story, the story about these people, that Simenon wishes to tell and not a story about his detective, as he says, who is only “a kind of rope” to assist us, the reader, through the story. As a matter of fact, we know little about Inspector Maigret; little is said or revealed about him other than what is warranted by the plot. He is not presented in a manner anything like what we are accustomed to in today’s crime fiction. He is not drunk, moody or depressed. He is not an obsessive, he is not trying to settle a grudge that only he can resolve, nor is he trying to discover his identity or fight personal demons, and he does not have a side occupation of killing people at night.

Although these types of crime solvers do make interesting and engaging reads, what we do have, what this author gives us in the way of a detective, is a decent married man, clever and intuitive, a person who is good at solving crimes. Again, the Inspector, is not the focus of the story, but the murderers and the victims are. What the Inspector does contribute to the novel is the “rope.”

I believe Agatha Christie also used this technique in her Miss Marple stories as did other writers in the first half of the 20th century. With the introduction of the Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade-type detectives, the focus started to shift and writers of mystery stories discovered that they could add another element to their stories, a third element, and that is by enlarging the role of the individual who does the investigating: the private detective and later the police detective. Instead of using the victim or the victim’s family as sympathetic characters for the reader to identify with (and sometimes even using the murderer for this purpose), the reader can now latch onto the principal character, especially when he/she has been given an interesting and engaging personality or a great personal challenge (drunkenness, moodiness, depression, etc.) The more volatile this personality is or the personal challenge he faces, the greater the roller coaster ride of emotions will be for the reader, and consequently a more engaging story.

However, this third element of a more fully developed detective is not what Mr. Simenon uses in his Maigret novels. But he was concerned about creating three-dimensional characters, just not in his Maigret novels. In The Paris Review he states:

   My characters – I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional. And
   I would like to make a man so that everybody, looking at him, would find his
   own problems in this man. . . . My characters have a profession, have character-
   istics; you know their age, their family situation, and everything. But I try to make
   each one of those characters heavy, like a statue (Collins).

The reader can decipher certain attributes about Inspector Maigret by this character’s pattern of behavior and his use of keen intuition. As for his physical appearance, it is often noted that in Simenon’s eighty-plus novels, this detective is only described with the scantiest of details: there is mention of him being a big man, wearing a bowler hat, and perhaps a “pipe clenched between his teeth” (67). We also know his coat had a velvet collar. Bresler discusses the “facelessness of Maigret” and quotes Simenon as saying, “I still do not know what his face looks like. . . . I only see the man and the presence” (66).

So that brings us back to the main subject of each novel. What we have are the two principle characters: the murderer and the victim (assuming that they may not always be singular) and the plot through which they are both revealed. I have two examples of such plots. In Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, Inspector Maigret steals a suitcase filled with old clothes at a train station and follows various suspects while trying to figure out why a young man would kill himself over its loss and why others would search so passionately for its return. Of course, the hook is the suicide resulting from the loss of the suitcase, and from that Simenon unwinds a story about a group of men who the detective follows from Paris to Belgium and Germany, and who at times each want to confess something to this detective and thus reveals part of their life story, only to have them pull back later, leaving Maigret (and the reader) to put the pieces together.

The story line in Maigret’s Pickpocket, a later novel, is about a pickpocket who returns the wallet he has stolen from Maigret, after which he leads the Inspector to a dead body, the man’s wife. The story unfolds as the Inspector traces the man’s alibi back to various restaurants and cafes through the questioning of film producers, directors, and camera men whom are involved in their own way in the pickpocket’s life; and through such means as questioning, Mr. Simenon and his detective, keeps the reader guessing as to whom among them could be the murderer.

We can see from these examples how Mr. Simenon uses plot to reveal the lives of his characters, the murderers and the victims. And through his method of using simple common words, in the simplest of forms, and lacking any unnecessary adjective or adverb, he gives us an interesting story, one which can be read through with ease. This may seem inconsequential, but Mr. Simenon was actually concerned about the length in pages and reading time of his novels. In answer to a question, if length was important to him, he responded by saying:

   Yes. That sounds like a practical question, but I think it is important, for the
   same reason you can’t see a tragedy in more than one sitting. I think that the
   pure novel is too tense for the reader to stop in the middle and take it up the
   next day (Collins).

Although I believe this quote was referring to his later novels, I can’t help think that the seed of this idea was already planted in his early works and matured into his later non-Maigret novels.

As a side note, I am sure that this style also makes the novels easy to translate. We are fortunate to have most, if not all, of the Maigret novels in translation and available.

Works Cited:
Bresler, Fenton S. The Mystery of Georges Simenon: a biography. New York:
   Beaufort Books, Inc., 1983.
Collins, Carvel. “Interviews. Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No 9.” The
   Paris Review. The Paris Review, n.d. Web.
Simenon, Georges. Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, trans. Tony White. Penguin
   Books: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1963.
—. Maigret’s Pickpocket, trans. Nigel Ryan. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf

Georges Simenon – An Appreciation of Style, Part 1

I have made several references to my appreciation of Mr. Simenon’s writing style, specifically regarding his Maigret novels, and I would like to take a few minutes now to explain why. Most of the information here, which relates to Mr. Simenon personally, is from Fenton Bresler’s book, The Mystery of Georges Simenon, A Biography. It was written in 1983 while the author was still alive. I also make reference to an interview he gave to The Paris Review in the summer of 1955. Mr. Simenon died in 1989 having written a good 80 plus Maigret novels. I am sure his fans and followers have already discovered this Maigret website (
f_maig.htm) which is current with all information relating to Mr. Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.

Mr. Simenon had written other detective stories before his most famous one (early 1930s), which were sold to the pulp magazines. Later, after his success, he wrote other novels along with his Maigrets. These were more psychological and perhaps even literary, a term he rarely used. Regarding the early detective and adventure stories, he is credited with having written eighty pages a day. Bresler quotes him as saying, “That means eighty pages of typing a day, at ninety-two words a minute,” Simenon goes on to explain:

   You don’t count in words in France or in Belgium, you count in lines. And they
   were novels of 10,000 lines each and I wrote them in three days! In French there
   are roughly seven words to a line, in English there are more because the words
   are shorter and in German there are less because the words are longer, but if you
   multiply by seven that means every novel was 70,000 words. In one month I once wrote
   five such novels (qtr in Bresler 52).

He was not referring to the Maigret novels, but those that were published under his seventeen pseudonyms, and “he could have six stories in a single issue of a magazine, each story signed with a different name” (Bresler 53). This prodigious output reminds me of the American writer of western tales, Max Brand (Frederick Faust), who was also in the habit of publishing under various pseudonyms in the same issue of a magazine: “Argosy for August 23, 1935, carried installments of book-length serials by Max Brand and Dennis Lawton, and a long story by George Challis: but no ordinary reader would have guessed that they were written by the same author” (Easton 182).

Commenting on his own method of writing during those early years before the Maigrets, he said:
   I would sit in front of the windows in the flat in the Place des Vosges, then suddenly
   I would get up, go the typewriter and write a story. Then I’d sit down by the window
   again. That happened up to eight times a day because I often wrote eight stories in a
   day (qtr. in Bresler 53).

What I like about Simenon’s style, which I suspect others do, also for this same reason, is his economy of words. He does this almost to a fault (the “fault” I will discuss at another time). Mr. Simenon claimed, from a statistic he had read once, that half the people of France used no more than 600 words in total. “So I endeavoured to use only ‘material’ words: a table, a chair, the wind, the rain. If it rains, I write, ‘It rains’; you will not find in my books drops of water that transform themselves into pearls, or I don’t know what. I want nothing that resembles literature. I have a horror of literature” (Bresler 2). And in reference to a question regarding the novel The Brothers Rico, (a non-Maigret crime novel) Simenon says, “I tried to do it very simply, simply. And there is not a single ‘literary’ sentence there, you know? It’s written as if by a child” (Collins).

Mr. Simenon was also economical in the Maigret novels when it comes to the use of internal dialogue, unlike, say Ruth Rendell, and more along the lines of Agatha Christie in the Miss Marple novels. Most of Maigret’s inner thoughts expressed on the page are those which pertain directly to the case, usually those inspired by the sight of someone present or within sight. To keep a 3rd person narrative moving, I believe the limit of internal dialogue is important, and I enjoy seeing how he handles this.

There are variations to this however, in Maigret’s Pickpocket (1967), the opening chapters have him ruminating about his wife acquiring a driver’s license, of course these ruminations are important to the plot, if he had not been distracted by these thoughts, he would have been aware that a pickpocket was after his wallet and ID. In an earlier work, Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets (1931), the reader is filled in on the action during the first few pages by an omniscient narrator, but this one particular narrator does not seem to want to leave and so remains long after the novel’s storyline was in full play.

Most of these incursions by this narrative voice was to guide the reader. Several examples of this from Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets are as follows: “Was it Maigret or Van Damme who suggested a stroll? In fact, neither did. It came about naturally” (Simenon 50) and “Had he in fact spoken? Could the Inspector, in that fantastic atmosphere, have been the victim of a delusion?”(Simenon 90). These side comments, acting as guideposts for the reader, do fit the free flowing style of this particular short novel. However, I do not see this narrative tone repeated in the later Maigret novels where such a tone would not fit.

To be continued.

Works Cited:
Bresler, Fenton S. The Mystery of Georges Simenon: a biography. New York: Beaufort
  Books, Inc., 1983.
Collins, Carvel. “Interviews. Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No 9.” The Paris
  Review. The Paris Review, n.d. Web.
Easton, Robert. Max Brand, The Big Westerner. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
Simenon, Georges. Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, trans. Tony White. Harmondsworth,
  Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1963.
—-. Maigret’s Pickpocket, trans. Nigel Ryan. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf