From Agatha Christie to Elmore Leonard, Alexander McCall Smith to Stieg Larsson, Margaret Doody to HRF Keating, the twentieth-century detective novel covers a vast thematic, emotional and linguistic range. In it we find all the perfidy and perversions of human nature, the relationship between criminality and society, the gulf that lies between the letter of the law and the idea of justice, the quest for truth and the need for lies, unfolded in a thousand ingenious and insightful tints.
But if pressed to choose an exemplar of the modern detective novel from among the dozens of contenders who could legitimately press their case, many readers would, I think, vote for the astonishingly productive and consistently compelling Belgian mystery writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989), creator of the everyman Parisian police inspector Jules Maigret.
How to translate an entire back catalogue
Between 1931 and 1972, Simenon wrote more than 70 novels in his Inspector Maigret series, going from a young man to an old man, a literary upstart to a celebrated veteran, even as Maigret himself starts and remains elderly. But, in some respects, as the continuing affection of readers in the 21st century shows, Simenon also remains ageless.
Part of the reason for this is that earlier this decade, Penguin Books commissioned new translations of 75 novels in the Maigret series, and have over the last six years issued one Maigret story a month.
The project has been a mammoth one, involving the work of as many as 11 translators, many of them respected names in the field – Ros Schwartz, Sian Reynolds, Howard Curtis – whose combined CV would make for a giant library of modern French literature, from Albert Camus to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, JMG Le Clézio to Fernand Braudel. Each translator has rendered, on average, six Simenons into English – probably more works by a single writer than any of them will translate in the course of their careers.
All this has resulted in a surprising sense of intimacy between translator and writer (running parallel, in some sense, with the intimacy the reader feels with Maigret in the books themselves).
Why readers love Georges Simenon
Although in real life Simenon was often described as a repulsive character – an egomaniac and a compulsive philanderer, drinking vast quantities of wine as he churned out the Maigret books in bouts of intense focus – the world he created for and through his famous protagonist radiates stability, calm and reassurance.
His translators love him for his concrete, limpid prose, rich in detail and deceptively straightforward in style – and, until now, for the fact that there has always been one more Maigret to translate. But finally, after six years, they have together come to the end of the road. The last few Maigret novels have been delivered to series editor Josephine Greywoode, and the final book – Maigret and Monsieur Charles, translated by Schwartz – comes out in January next year.
"By now I feel more married to Maigret than poor, long-suffering Madame Maigret," Schwartz tells The National, at the desk of her small study in her home in Hendon, north London.
“But I hope these translations will help equalise the way Maigret is perceived in the Anglophone world and the Francophone one.
“In English, Simenon is seen as a sort of hack who churned out these potboilers at enormous speed. In France, he’s a writer’s writer. French authors see him as a model of concision and descriptive power.
“He’s so brilliant on description... he can nail a town in a paragraph. Because it’s about the France I love, I find translating him quite emotional sometimes... I’m like, ‘I’ve been there, I know that town, I can smell that street’.
“I love the period detail... exactly what kind of taxis they took, what kind of delivery van this department store had.”
Who is Inspector Maigret?
Not only is Simenon's style something to admire, so is the sensibility of his everyman detective, who sees himself less as a brilliant mastermind in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, as more a humble cog in a machine (he even prefers the term "civil servant" to policeman).
Plodding and persistent, forever ready to strike up a conversation and to probe away for hours – one of the reasons why the books are page-turners is because sometimes dozens of pages at a stretch comprise only dialogue – Maigret is as compassionate as a cop can be.
"Maigret is a mix between a priest and a doctor, in a way, who'll say to somebody: 'I know you did this, and you know that I know, but what I want to find out is why'," says Schwartz. "These books are not whodunnits – they're much more complex than that. Simenon was fascinated by what makes people tick. His criminals are rarely 'bad' people, but rather ordinary people pushed beyond breaking point. The more Maigret uncovers about a case, the more he arrives at a sense that 'But for the grace of God go I.'"
In the book Maigret's Memoirs – one of the best novels in the series, in which Simenon boldly turns the character's gaze upon the writer himself and shows us Maigret complaining that Simenon was less than faithful to the truth in making up the character "Maigret" – there is an explanation that most of the crimes he investigates are almost inevitable, "the end-product of a long-hidden product of fermentation".
Simenon and Maigret are allies, then, in a spiritual project: that of exploring the depths of crime and violence to illuminate the deeper correspondences between human beings across the superficial divides of class and morality.
“Paraphrasing a maxim from my catechism teacher, I am prepared to say,” Maigret remarks, “a little knowledge distances us from people, a lot of knowledge brings us closer.”
There are many similarities between novelist and character, I suggest to Schwartz, but in the realm of love and marriage they could not be more different.
Simenon was sexually voracious, while Maigret is utterly monogamous. His wife is the very model of the devoted homemaker – cooking and cleaning super-efficiently so that he may return from his long hours in the dark alleys of Paris and the harsh talk of investigation rooms to a world of bourgeois comfort and domesticity.
“Well, Maigret exudes gravitas and authority, so it wouldn’t do for him to go messing around with other women!” she says. “I agree, Madame Maigret is very much the perfect wife... almost a male fantasy. I think millennials might find her submissiveness a bit hard to stomach. But there are other women in Simenon’s books who are sexual predators, at a time when women were not supposed to be predatory. There’s one woman who’s very promiscuous, and it’s her way of getting back at men... and there are a lot of killer grannies... sweet little ladies are the killers.
“One woman in a non-Maigret book kills her husband because she’s bored of living in a perfect bourgeois world, and poisons him and goes to jail and has no remorse for it. Simenon is quite anti-bourgeois... he really has it in for them and he’s always on the side of the little people.”
Why translators love Simenon
In 2015 Schwartz travelled to Seneffe in Belgium for a unique conference: a symposium of the translators of the Maigret novels across many languages.
"There was most of the English team, the Dutch team – they were also re-translating part of Simenon's oeuvre – as well as a Finnish and an Estonian translator, gathered in the presence of Simenon's son, John, and various Simenon experts as well as our publisher, Josephine Greywoode.
"We spent three days discussing a whole range of translation issues – including an entire morning arguing about the use of ellipses. John provided many fascinating insights and gave us access to Simenon's correspondence with his early translators and publishers."
“We also visited Liege, where he was born, and we were given a guided tour of the Simenon museum there. It was moving to see his typewriter and the desk on which he worked: a midwife’s wooden birthing table.”
On that humble object was birthed the most compassionate and consoling of modern detectives. Long may Maigret live and thrive.