Unlike his famous French creation, Simenon (1903-1989) was Belgian. He was born in Liège and became a cub reporter for the Gazette de Liège when he was only 16. In his 20s the young newspaperman became an author of pulp novels, writing at great speed to produce some 200 short novels and stories in less than 10 years, under more than two dozen pseudonyms. He referred to them as his “novels for secretaries”.

Simenon could dash off 60 to 80 pages per day, an impressive output that eventually made him one of the most productive writers of the 20th century. His whole body of work includes nearly 200 novels and over 150 novellas, including the often-celebrated "psychological novels", several autobiographical works, numerous articles, plus the scores of trashy pulps. The “Maigrets” make up barely a fifth of his literary output.

The young writer moved from Liege to Paris in search of fortune by writing “good” books, for which he took the advice of his mentor, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette — “Get rid of all the literature, and you’ve got it”. In 1930 publisher Arthème Fayard read his first three Maigret manuscripts and decided to take a chance on them, despite his concern that the stories had “no mathematical problems, no love story, no good and bad characters and no happy endings”.

Simenon dropped his pseudonyms. “Pietr the Latvian” was the first Maigret to appear, in 1930, with the other 74 novels published between then and 1972. Now Maigret is the subject of a major ongoing reissue campaign by Penguin Classics to republish them all, chronologically, one a month, in paperback and with new translations.

The ambitious project began in November 2013 with “Pietr the Latvian”, then “The Late Monsieur Gallet in December 2013, “The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien” in January 2014 and so on. The reissue book covers all come from the work of famed Magnum photographer Harry Gruvaert, creating a pleasant harmony if you go for the complete set. Gruvaert’s photographs often contain an air of dramatic mystery, making them a natural companion for a series of detective novels.

When people write about Simenon, they like to say how admired he was by authors as varied as Colette, André Gide, William Faulkner, Muriel Spark and Paul Theroux. According to Britain’s “Guardian” he is 'One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century”. “The Observer”: “A unique teller of tales.” But it is not quite as simple as that.

Simenon, who gave many interviews and wrote a lot about himself, professed not to know his plots in advance. There was no plan or notes, perhaps just the names of some principal characters and streets written on the back of an old envelope. He didn’t know where the story would go from one chapter to the next. Thus Simenon and Maigret solve the crime together, discovering the identity of the criminal together.
Simenon usually knocked out a Maigret in under 10 days, even under a week, and they were around 150 pages. He believed his books were popular because they were so short that readers didn’t have time to get fed up with him. The brevity of the novels is partly due to his working methods: he would wait until a suitable setting or character had formed in his mind and then retreat to his study and pour out the
book as quickly as possible.

But it is a hit-and-miss method. Despite what the admirers say, some books fail to live up to others and the quality can vary within a book. Some incidents can be a bit ridiculous. You can often feel the haste with which it is written. It doesn’t seem that Simenon is one to revise anything.

But there is a lot of fine atmospheric writing and Simenon usually has you hooked within a couple of pages. There is good detail and acute observation. Maigret is famed for his intuitiveness, watching and waiting, moving slowly through his suspects until someone makes a slip or breaks down and confesses. Sometimes things move so slowly it is as though the books were written in real time, though at other times there is a burst of action.

The Paris weather is typically rotten and there is an air of moral squalor. Simenon is voyeuristic and he likes the sordid. He notices women’s stocking tops, hair under their armpits and glimpses of breast: “Her blouse hung slightly open.”

“Mairget at Picratt’s”, published in 1951, is the 36th release in the reissues. Previous translations had the titles “Maigret and the Strangled Stripper” and “Maigret in Montmartre”. A young cabaret dancer in a black silk dress leads Maigret into a seamy world of nightclubs, drug addiction and exploitation on the red-light streets. She and a countess are both strangled. There are prostitutes and gigolos.
Maigret slides through it all, checking out the lives of everyone in the vicinity as he seeks his solution. This is quite a compelling “Maigret” and it takes you through to the end.

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