Georges Simenon Long Fiction Analysis
Named by the highly regarded André Gide as the greatest modern French novelist, Georges Simenon indeed compiled an enviable record of achievement, producing a body of work equally remarkable for its quality as for its quantity. The apprenticeship he served in writing his so-called potboilers appears to have served him well, allowing him to write fluently while maintaining rigorous standards of content and characterization. Simenon’s demonstrated proficiency in the mystery genre alone would no doubt suffice to secure his position in the history of modern letters; nevertheless, he further confirmed his reputation with a solid list of mainstream titles valued for their psychological insights.
Simenon’s prodigious accomplishment may be explained, at least to a point, by acknowledging that his fictional universe remains essentially the same regardless of whether Maigret is involved in the action; in both types of novel, the trueprotagonists are hounded, uncommunicative creatures with little more than the most marginal knowledge of what makes them behave as they do. The main difference, as Becker has observed, lies in the thoughtful, reconciling presence of Maigret, who functions almost as a psychoanalyst in “solving” the mystery of behavior to the satisfaction of characters and readers alike; in the mainstream novels, the characters remain in their own private hells, understood (if at all) only by the narrator and his reader. Rarely, and then with remarkable effect, does Simenon surprise the reader with his conclusions; even then, as elsewhere in Simenon’s novels, the denouement soon appears inevitable, amply prepared for by what he has revealed of the characters’ makeup and motivations.
By his own admission, Simenon “discovered” Maigret at a time when, still unsure of his skills as a novelist, he was seeking a viewpoint character who could move about in space and time as the conventional narrator (or novelist) could not; eventually, he settled on a policeman as ideally suited to his needs and proposed the Maigret series, initially planned for eighteen volumes. The result, by now almost legendary, was one of the most durable characters in the history of detective fiction, further established by his omnipresent pipe, his childless wife, and cold meals ordered “to go” during the late-night hours from the obliging Brasserie Dauphine. Modeled on Simenon’s own pensive, easygoing father, Maigret is on occasion so appealing that he makes the prospect of crime seem nearly attractive to the reader. The eminent playwright Jean Anouilh paid indirect homage to Maigret with L’Arrestation (pr., pb. 1975; The Arrest, 1978), in which an aging gangster, mortally wounded in a motor accident, is fortunate enough, in his final moments, to have his entire life explained to him by an even older inspector who has devoted his own career to studying the gangster’s lifestyle and habits. Habitual criminals are, however, rather rare quarry for Maigret; more commonly, the crimes with which he deals are perpetrated by inhabitual offenders, seemingly normal people suddenly propelled toward violence by an accumulation of privation or resentment.
Maigret’s murderers frequently kill for love or for its cherished memory. In Maigret and the Loner, one of Simenon’s later Maigret adventures, more than twenty years elapse before a lovesick painter avenges his girlfriend’s murder with the apparently gratuitous killing of his erstwhile rival, who has since become a homeless derelict. To Maigret, as to his creator, the painter could not possibly have behaved otherwise, his crime having long since been predetermined. Indeed, Maigret solves easily half of his initially baffling mysteries by reconstructing the lives of the victims in search of signs of irregularity or stress that could have engendered violence. Simenon himself claimed that, upon study of the evidence, “there are at least eight crimes in ten in which the victim shares to a great extent the responsibility of the murderer.” Similar cases abound throughout Maigret’s career, from nagging spouses and sadistic lovers to the “public enemy” Fumal in Maigret’s Failure, who himself victimized so many people that Maigret is hard put to choose among them as he reluctantly searches for Fumal’s killer.
Occasionally, as in Maigret Sets a Trap, the identity of the murderer is known early in the novel, lacking only Maigret’s deductive analysis to render the case against him (or her) conclusive. Identified by a police “plant” and hemmed in by circumstantial evidence, the admittedly unlikely mass murderer, a mild-mannered interior decorator named Moncin, eludes conviction only because an additional, identical murder was committed after he was taken into custody. As Maigret, following a hunch, delves deeper into Moncin’s life and career, he finds a spoiled and highly intelligent man dominated by his wife and mother, who compete ceaselessly for top billing in his life. Either woman, Maigret reasons, would have had both motive and capacity to commit the “decoy” murder; in fact, it was the wife who did it, thus scoring a final, irrefutable “point” against her husband’s mother.
Strangers in the House
Generally similar in theme and subject matter to the novels featuring Maigret, Simenon’s mainstream titles likewise abound in ill-adjusted characters who live in quiet desperation, occasionally bursting out in violence. The expository method employed is frequently similar to...
(The entire section is 2280 words.)