I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

The Inspector Returns


Posh writers have often expressed their admiration for Georges Simenon, but generally he found himself unable to repay the compliment. He corresponded with André Gide, but couldn’t read his books. By 1937, when he was thirty-four, writes Julian Barnes in a fine essay in the TLS, he reckoned he had written 349 novels (though wikipedia.fr credits him with only one hundred and seventeen in total) and felt he must surely be worth the Nobel Prize – in, say, ten years’ time perhaps. But the winner of the Nobel in 1947 was old unreadable André Gide. In 1961, he was still thinking about it, while telling his diary he didn’t care: “Let them fuck off and leave me in peace.” Simenon is believed to have sold approximately 500 million books, though of course money isn’t everything.

Georges Simenon is best known for his Maigret novels (seventy-five of them) whose popularity in the English market was certainly enhanced by a 1960s TV dramatisation starring Rupert Davies (fifty-two episodes over four years) and perhaps by a later more rickety one with Michael Gambon, Budapest, on this occasion, standing in for Paris. Now (starting on May 7th) they are being republished by Penguin (the old ones, in the traditional green livery, still occasionally turn up on second-hand stalls, presumably for the most part the clearings of the houses of the deceased). Simenon’s Maigret stories are simply told, though the plot may have its twists, and compelling. Their hero is a quite ordinary man, though more reflective than most, who understands the “little people” and what may occasionally drive them to murder. The books are, most importantly, just the right length. In my twenties I often opened up a new one after going to bed around midnight, six or seven cigarettes left in a ten packet on the bedside table. About four I would place it face down, finish the last cigarette, turn over and be asleep in five minutes. What a satisfying way to pass the time.

Julian Barnes writes of Inspector Maigret’s consumption of food and drink:

There is a great deal of eating and drinking in Maigretland, often class-defined and sometimes indicative of criminality. Never trust a man whose “light” lunch consists of an omelette aux fines herbes, a veal cutlet in crème fraiche and a bottle of the finest burgundy. Contrast this with an honest breakfast of Maigret’s: a hunk of bread, a terrine of paté, and a mug of white wine. A villain will order an 1867 Armagnac; an Etonian rotter will call for still champagne; while Maigret swigs his wife’s home-made plum liqueur – and many, many other drinks as well. The Inspector is clearly, on the evidence of these first six books, a functioning alcoholic, forever at the beer, the wine, the fine and the Calvados; today he would be sent off to HR to help him share and confront his problem. It’s possible Simenon didn’t notice how much Maigret was drinking because the novelist was himself a functioning alcoholic at the time. He even drank while at the typewriter; and a sympathetic doctor suggested that on writing days he limit himself to just the two bottles of red, preferably neither too old nor too young. Patrick Marnham, in The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret (1992), tells how the BBC’s adaptations were so faithful to the books that “a temperance pressure group started to count the amount of alcohol Maigret drank in each episode and an Anglican bishop implored the producers to reduce it”.

The first batch of Penguin reissues are Pietr The LatvianThe Late Monsieur GalletThe Hanged Man of Saint-PholienThe Carter of La ProvidenceThe Yellow Dog and Night at the Crossroads. Plenty more to follow.

Read Julian Barnes