Rereading Recommendation: Georges Simenon

by Thomas Sweterlitsch

You may have heard of the Inspector Maigret novels, the seventy-five novels starring Paris-based Commissaire Jules Maigret, written by the Belgian-born Georges Simenon.  Simenon was a prodigy, penning articles for his hometown newspaper in Liège at the age of fifteen, completing his first novels not long thereafter.  He was prolific throughout his life, credited with hundreds of novels and short stories—but it was his Maigret novels that brought him international renown, slim mysteries begun in the 1930’s that carried through the war years into the mid-1960’s, spawning various movie versions and television episodes, becoming a worldwide phenomenon.  The Maigret novels are detective novels, but Maigret is a different sort of detective, more of an observer of human nature, who solves crimes by solving the criminals themselves, finding the ‘cracks’ in the villains’ facades that ultimately lead to their undoing. 

I’m not necessarily recommending a revisit to the Maigret novels—the Maigret novels are good, but while Simenon was churning out these wildly successful detective stories, he was also at work writing a different kind of novel, psychologically complex and sinister stories he called romans durs, (“hard” novels), often about the underbelly of middle-class life and the moments when desire curdles into despair.  Simenon’s life was provocative—he caroused with people of all stripes, and his eyebrow-raising love life was legendary, keeping mistresses along with a wife while entertaining girlfriends and sleeping with prostitutes – making it easy to imagine the seedier details of Simenon’s private life informing his tales of businessmen who disappear from their own lives, of a young widow in love with the hired man, of middle-aged men lashing out against the constrictions of their families and their respectable careers.  These romans durs are poetic, beautiful gemlike novels that capture the seductive, black-hearted conditions of the mid-twentieth century.        

My recommendation: The Engagement, about Mr. Hire, a voyeur, a crook, a pornographer, fingered for the murder of a prostitute, caught up in a dangerous cat and mouse game with the police over a crime he didn’t commit.

THOMAS SWETERLITSCH lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter. He has a Master’s Degree in Literary and Cultural Theory from Carnegie Mellon University. He worked for twelve years at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Tomorrow and Tomorrow was his first novel, and he is currently at work on his second.

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