Simenon wrote his first Maigret 'official' novel in 1931 (there were a many anonymous works but he considered them outside the main sequence). His early commercial work was proof read by Collette, who did much to create his style. She urged him to cut adjectives in favor of a sparse, lean prose. Not a word is wasted. ('I have always tried to write in a simple way, using down-to-earth and not abstract words.') Simenon famously wrote his novels in about ten intense days, leaving him physically exhausted. He'd start with a theme, chose a location and then his characters, all before devising a story.
Simenon's focus is human nature. His characters, however fleetingly glimpsed, live and breathe. He looks at them straight on, in all their squalidness, but with pity. As important as his characters is atmosphere of place. Place is so important to Simenon that you can get maps and tours of the locations of his novels. Though born in Belgium, France - and particularly Paris - was his true home.
I've never been a huge fan of his work. I go in expecting a classic mystery and get something else. It's perhaps inevitable that I would compare his work to that of the British authors of the Golden Age. There is no similarity at all! The Golden Age was typified by the problem puzzle. In Simenon's work, mystery isn't the focus. You're not presented with clues and invited to solve whodunit. British mysteries of the same period are genteel affairs, in an upper or middle class milieu. Simenon takes you straight to the gutter. His characters are long time criminals, gangs and prostitutes.
His themes are bigger too - escape, honest communication between individuals ('The fact that we are I don't know how many millions of people, yet communication, complete communication, is completely impossible between two of those people, is to me one of the biggest tragic themes in the world.'), the 'essential humanity of even the most isolated individual' and the sadness of being human. Not quite Ngaio Marsh!
To kick off Paris in July I'll be starting with two works, Maigret at the crossroads and Maigret and the enigmatic Lett. So far, it's a real treat. It's perhaps a cliche to talk about atmosphere with Simenon but this is fabulous stuff. He does so much with so little. The crime aspect is slightly over the top but I don't mind. We're not here for a mystery. We're here to dive into the criminal world of France. I'm just learning about Maigret, commissaire of the Paris Brigade Criminelle. With his trademark pipe, he is not a brilliant detective, but patient, methodical and unrelenting- and not adverse to punching an opponent. He does seem to drink a lot, but is not a drunk. As his character develops through the series he apparently becomes more psychological in his approach - he relies on his knowledge of the human character to solve the crime. He appears to be a weary, solid figure - aware of the sadness of the world and compassionate and unjudgemental of the criminals he encounters.
Loving them so far - and best of all - there are about 70 more to go!
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