The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret

Before he turned thirty, Georges Simenon had published more than two hundred novels—thrillers, detective stories, erotic tales, pulp fiction of every kind—under a variety of pseudonyms. His first two novels featuring Inspector Maigret were issued together in 1931, shortly after his twenty-eighth birthday. Ultimately, there would be seventy-six titles in the enormously popular Maigret series, and another 119 “romans durs,” as Simenon called them—the darker, moreserious novels on which he believed his reputation would rest.

What drove him to such prodigies of imaginative creation? How did he do it? Patrick Marnham’s THE MAN WHO WASN’T MAIGRET is the third full-length biography of Simenon in English. First published in Britain in 1992, it comes across the Atlantic bearing extravagant tributes from Muriel Spark and A. N. Wilson, among others. While it doesn’t measure up to its dust-jacket credentials, Marnham’s biography is clearly the best in English to date.

Marnham is particularly good on Simenon’s childhood and youth in Belgium, vividly re-creating the claustrophobic bourgeois society against which Simenon reacted with a vengeance. Marnham’s stress on the impact of World War I and the German occupation of Belgium is also persuasive. Throughout the course of his narrative he sets straight misconceptions and inaccuracies that have crept into the public record—not a few fabricated by Simenon himself.

The most disappointing sections of Marnham’s book are those in which he discusses Simenon’s creative process and (briefly) analyzes his works; see by way of contrast the chapter on Simenonin Gavin Lambert’s THE DANGEROUS EDGE (1976). Marnham’s text is supplemented by an excellent selection of photographs, notes, a bibliography, an unusually full index, and a useful list of the Maigret titles and the “romans durs.”