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