Simenon, who was born in Liege in 1903 and moved to Paris at age 19, churned out nearly 200 pulp novels in the 1920s under many pen names as a sort of writing apprenticeship. He disparaged these later as his "novels for secretaries" and he preferred to forget them (a wish with which the literary world seems to have readily complied).

Starting from the early 1930s, Simenon found the courage and skill to write under his own name, and launched into the two kinds of novels. His romans durs were for him the Rolls-Royces he assembled so carefully, and were the standard by which he wished to be judged, while the "Maigrets" took the wheel of the titles he called Fords.

Only Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes has proved to be more enduring and beloved than Simenon's inspector, and while it seems ridiculous to regard the 75 titles featuring such an iconic character as Maigret as mere diversions, this is how Simenon saw it.

Unlike the "Maigret" novels, the author didn't view the roman durs as commercial in nature and he felt no need to make concessions to morality or popular taste. He wrote the "Maigrets", he claimed, as a means of relaxation. They were entertainments rather than serious novels, and he typed them, start to finish. The romans durs demanded greater focus. The "Maigrets" made more money.

The difference between the two, Simenon concluded, was "Exactly the same difference that exists between the painting of a painter and the sketch he will make for his pleasure or for his friends or to study something". As he grew older, he wrote drafts of the "hard" books in longhand, by pencil, an uncommonly deliberate approach for this prolific writer.

Though they are more serious in tone and intent, the romans durs seldom exceed 200 pages. He meant for his works to be read in a single sitting, and beyond this consideration, the length was ideal for his style and concerns. Simenon resolutely avoided anything he viewed as "too literary" or unduly ornamented. The "psychological" books are resolutely unsentimental.

Circumstances in them are never less than uncomfortable and often outright desperate. He traded on a view that the tension between men and women animates many of life's conflicts. Both resort to desperate actions. Jealousy and duplicity are rampant.

"The Pitards", published in 1935, is one example. After publishing 20 "Maigrets" in 1931-34 – 20! – this was one of the first novels Simenon wrote when he shelved the series about the Parisian policeman in order to strike out in a new direction and make a name for himself as a literary writer. The next "Maigret" would not follow until 1942.

This 1935 book is centred on a sea captain, Captain Émile Lannec, who has finally managed to buy his own ship with the financial help of his in-laws, the Pitards. His temperamental wife of two years, Mathilde, insists on coming along on Lannec's first voyage, from Rouen to Hamburg. It is the first time she has wanted to do so, and trouble breaks out in a big way.

Mathias, the chief engineer, Moinard, the chief mate, Campois, the steward, and Paul, the radio operator with a glass eye, are caught up in the tension. The freighter is a claustrophobic place and "There was a familiar odour in the air, a compound of cooking smells, engine oil, and the sweat of the four men whose quarters opened directly onto the mess room."

The boat is an old English steamer that had already been at sea for 60 years. Mathilde's mother gave the guarantee to the bank that secured the loan needed to add to Lannec's and Moinard's cash for its purchase. Lannec renames it Tonnerre-de-Dieu (God's Thunder, or Hellfire).

He is conscious that the Pitards will never let him forget their assistance. Did the old lady want her daughter aboard to keep an eye on him?

He finds a piece of paper in the chart house with a message written in crayon: "Don't try to be too clever. A person who knows what he's saying is telling you that the Tonnerre-de-Dieu will not reach safe haven. That person sends greetings to you and says hallo to Mathilde."

And according to Campois, there is a ghost aboard and it has taken a whole ham in the night, the apparition being the ghost of the Busiris, the name of the steamer before Lannec bought it.

Slowly, paranoia and jealousy build in the confined spaces. Mathilde throws a tantrum and won't come out of her room. There is a frightening storm in the Atlantic when the boat takes on a new cargo in Hamburg and sails for Iceland. Snobbery too has an effect as relationships unravel and mental cancers eat away at reason.

This is a solid nascent Simenon but he will get better. Readers don't really need to differentiate between the two sides of his output and can enjoy them both, with the proviso that he sometimes went a bit wild and missed the mark. English crime writer and critic H.R.F. Keating, in his 1987 survey of the 100 best crime and mystery books, awarded three places to Simenon with two novels from the detective series – "My Friend Maigret" (1949) and "Maigret in Court" (1960) – and one "hard" book, "The Stain on the Snow" (1948), the story of a young man who becomes a killer and rapist during the Nazi occupation of France.


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