Today (13 February) marks the birth in 1903 of Georges Simenon, one of the most popular authors of the 20th century. He was also incredibly prolific, publishing around 400 novels, 21 volumes of memoirs and many short stories, which together have sold over 500 million copies. Here’s a short overview of his life and legacy. It’s the latest addition to my Remarkable Belgians series.
Georges Simenon was born on February 13, 1903, in Liège, Belgium. He was the second son of Désiré Simenon, an accountant, and Henriette Brühl. Simenon had a rather turbulent relationship with his father, whose strictness and distant demeanor deeply influenced him. Simenon’s mother’s family had connections to Flemish, Dutch, and German descent, including an infamous ancestor named Gabriel Brühl, a criminal who operated in Limburg during the 18th century.
Early writing career
Simenon’s writing career began in his teenage years when he worked as a reporter for a local newspaper, the Gazette de Liège. Within a few months he was promoted to crime reporting. In 1920-21 he enrolled in a course on forensic science at the University of Liège, to improve his knowledge of the latest police methods. In 1921 he self-published his first novel, Au Pont des Arches. The following year he moved to Paris to pursue his literary ambitions. His early works included pulp fiction novels and short stories published under various pseudonyms.
Creation of Inspector Maigret
In 1930, Georges Simenon introduced his most famous literary creation, Inspector Jules Maigret, in the novel Pietr-le-Letton (Pietr the Latvian). Maigret, a pipe-smoking detective with a methodical and intuitive approach to solving crimes, would go on to become one of the most beloved characters in detective fiction. The Maigret series, comprising 75 novels and 28 short stories, remains Simenon’s most enduring literary legacy. These novels are set in Paris and feature Inspector Maigret solving crimes with his trademark patience and insight. Recurrent themes in the Maigret novels include political influence over the justice system, snobbery and class divisions, and the role of social background and pure chance in determining whether an individual becomes a criminal or a respected member of society.
Simenon was remarkably productive. He wrote over 200 novels under his own name and more than 300 others under various pseudonyms. His writing style was characterized by its spare prose, psychological depth, and keen observations of human behavior. Simenon’s non-Maigret works often explored themes of existentialism, morality, and the darker aspects of human nature.
Simenon led a tumultuous personal life marked by numerous affairs and marriages. He was married twice and had several children. His relationships often mirrored the complexities and ambiguities present in his novels.
Legacy of Georges Simenon
Georges Simenon has had a lasting impact on the detective genre and literature in general. His influence can be seen in the works of subsequent crime writers and filmmakers. The character of Inspector Maigret has been portrayed in numerous film and television adaptations, further cementing Simenon’s place in literary history.
Later years and death
In his later years, Simenon retreated from the public eye and settled in Lausanne, Switzerland. He continued to write prolifically but eventually stopped producing fiction altogether in the 1970s. Georges Simenon died on September 4, 1989. Honors received include: President of the Mystery Writers of America (1952), Member of Royal Academy of French Language and Literature of Belgium (1952), Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur (1955), and Honorary Member of American Academy of Arts and Letters (1971).
Have you read Georges Simenon?
I have read only one of Simenon’s books: Le Charretier de la Providence which was translated as The Crime at Lock 14 or in a later reprint as Maigret meets a Milord.
Maigret is standing in the pouring rain by a canal. A well-dressed woman, Mary Lampson, has been found strangled in a stable nearby. Why did her glamorous, hedonistic life come to such a brutal end here? Surely her taciturn husband Sir Walter knows – or maybe the answers lie with the crew of the barge La Providence?
It’s one of Simenon’s early Maigret novels and I enjoyed it immensely. I intended it to be the first of many Maigret novels I would read, but have never got around to reading more. Perhaps it’s time to start another?
Among his most highly rated works are The Saint-Fiacre Affair (1932), Monsieur Hire’s Engagement (1933), Act of Passion (1947), The Snow was Dirty (1948) and The Cat (1967).
What is your favorite Simenon or Maigret novel?