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Saturday, 8 November 2014

Georges Simenon (1903-1989)

Detectives of the Golden Age
Georges Simenon (1903-1989)
By Carol Westron

Simenon was born in Belgium, the son of an accountant in an insurance company. He was born a few minutes into Friday 13th February but his superstitious mother insisted on his birth certificate being falsified and gave him the more auspicious birthday of Thursday 12th. One of his mother's more notorious ancestors was Gabriel Brühl, a robber who was hanged in 1743; later Simenon used Brühl as one of his pseudonyms.

Simenon's family moved many times in his childhood, a pattern of life that Simenon was to replicate throughout his life. One of the most significant house moves in his childhood was when his parents moved to a large house that enabled them to take in lodgers, which meant that Simenon was mixing with students and apprentices of many nationalities and this early experience contributed to the cosmopolitan flavour of his books.

Simenon's relationship with his mother was stormy and often cold, especially after the birth of his brother whom she much preferred. (It is reported that when Simenon's brother died, she said to Simenon that she wished it had been him rather than his brother.) Perhaps to make up for this deficit, Simenon was very close to his father and devastated by his death when Simenon was only seventeen. Many psychologists have theorised that Simenon's dysfunctional relationship with his mother was the root cause of his extreme promiscuity (in old age he claimed to have slept with at least 10,000 women) and his self-serving egotism, which led to his investigation for collaboration with the Nazis after the Second World War. 

From 1914 to 1918 Simenon attended the Collège Saint-Louis, a Jesuit high school, but in 1918, when he was fifteen he left the Collège, using his father's failing health as his reason. For some months he had short-term jobs  until, in January 1919, he took a job at the newspaper the Gazette de Liège. Simenon's job was to report on unchallenging human interest stories but his contact with the newspaper gave him the opportunity to explore politics, bars and cheap hotels as well as arousing an interest in crime and criminal investigations. It was at this time he attended lectures by the ground-breaking criminologist Edmund Locard. While at the newspaper he wrote over 150 articles under the pen name G. Sim. Also under this pen name he published his first novel, Au Pont des Arches, in 1921, and under the name Monsieur Le Coq he published more than 800 humorous pieces between 1919 and 1922. During these years he became increasingly familiar with the seamier side of city night life, consorting with prostitutes, anarchists, bohemian artists and criminals, including murderers. This experience forms the background for many of his books, including his best-remembered series featuring Commissaire Maigret.

In 1922 Simenon's father died and he and his mistress, Régine Renchon, moved to Paris. In 1923 they returned to Liege in order to be married. Despite Simenon's lack of faith, his mother insisted that Régine should convert and they should be married in a Roman Catholic Church, and all of Simenon's children were later baptised into the Catholic Church.

Simenon seemed to favour nicknames for the women in his close family circle, which he insisted they respond to rather than their given names; Regine was always known as Tigy, while Henriette Liberge, their cook and housekeeper, was known as Boule (literally translated as Ball) due to her plumpness. Boule was sexually involved with Simenon for several decades, but she was by no means the only woman to have an affair with Simenon; throughout his life he had numerous liaisons with other women, perhaps the most famous of which was his relationship with the singer and dancer, Josephine Baker.

A reporting assignment had awakened Simenon's pleasure in boating and in 1929 he had a boat built. Simenon, Tigy, Boule and their dog, Olaf, lived on board this boat and travelled the French canal system. It was in 1930, while boating in the Netherlands, in and around the Dutch town of Delfzijl, that Simenon created his most famous character, Commissaire Maigret. There is a commemorative statue of Maigret in Delfzijl, which was unveiled in 1966 by Simenon, and  the ceremony was attended by actors, of many nationalities, who had played Maigret.

Between 1930 and 1934 Simenon travelled extensively in eastern Europe, Africa, Turkey and the Soviet union, culminating in a two year trip around the world. He and his family then settled in a succession of houses in France and in 1939, Marc, Simenon's only child with Tigy, was born.

Simenon's conduct in the Second World War has cast a shadow over his reputation, although most people now tend to the view that he was apolitical and opportunistic rather than a collaborator with the Germans. In the early 1940s Simenon had a serious health scare when he was misdiagnosed with heart disease, the condition that killed his father. Also around this time, Tigy finally had confirmation of Simenon's sexual relationship with their housekeeper, Boule. Although Simenon and Tigy did not divorce until 1949, for the last few years their relationship was only a marriage in name, especially as, despite Tigy's protests, Boule remained with the family.

In 1945 Simenon chose to avoid questioning about his relationship with the German invaders and left France for Canada and the United States. Simenon, Marc and Boule all learned to speak English, but Tigy struggled with the language and longed to return to Europe. It was at this time that Simenon met Denyse Ouimet, a young woman seventeen years his junior, and they started a tempestuous love affair. In 1949 Simenon and Tigy divorced and in 1950 he married Denyse. It is interesting to note that apparently Denyse did not have a nickname bestowed on her by Simenon and to speculate whether she refused to accept this particular form of control. Denyse and Simenon had three children: Johnny, born in 1949; Marie-Jo, born in 1953; and Pierre, born in 1959. Although Simenon had not lived in Belgium since 1922, he always retained his Belgian citizenship and, in 1952 was made a member of the
Academie Royale de Belgique.

Simenon and his family returned to Europe in 1955, first living in France and then in Switzerland. In 1964 Simenon and his second wife, Denyse, separated. Simenon had already started an affair with his new housekeeper, Teresa, who he had hired in 1961 and she remained as his companion until his death. In 1966 Simenon was given the Mystery Writers of America's most prestigious honour, the award of Grand Master.

Simenon's later years were darkened by the suicide, in 1978, of his only daughter, Marie-Jo, when she was twenty-five. Marie-Jo was a deeply troubled young woman, obsessively devoted to her father; when she was a child she had begged him to buy her a gold 'wedding' ring, which she had enlarged as she grew older. One of the last things she spoke of was her father's 'crushing genius'. As a final, cruel irony, when she decided to shoot herself she discovered the whereabouts of a Parisian gunsmith by consulting one of Simenon's novels that was set in Paris.In 1984 Simenon underwent surgery for a brain tumour. He recovered but his health deteriorated and he died in 1989.

When writing about Simenon's life I found it impossible to interweave his novels into the narrative because they were so numerous and seem to be the fabric of his life. He was one of the most prolific writers of the century, producing nearly 200 novels (including a number of 'psychological novels'), 150 novellas, a large number of articles and an immense number of 'pulp' novels written under at least two dozen pseudonyms. He also wrote several autobiographical works, especially in the last years of his life. Simenon would set himself the task of writing a novel in eleven days, eight for writing and three for editing. During that time he would live a monk-like existence, immersing himself in his work. He said, in interview, that if anything disrupted that eleven day writing  process, (such as him being unwell and having to rest for a day) he would throw the book away because for him it was no longer a workable project. He also said that he started knowing the names, ages and appearances of his characters but did not plot, because that would destroy his interest in his book.

Rather like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Simenon was outraged that the novels and short stories that proved most popular were his Maigret novels, rather than his more serious works. Nevertheless the Maigret books are a significant and powerful body of work, a view confirmed by T.S. Eliot, a writer that Simenon greatly admired, when asked about the two most significant changes in his life in recent years: 'I now prefer Claret to Burgundy and I prefer Inspector Maigret to Arsene Lupin.'

Between 1931 and 1972,  Simenon wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories featuring Commissaire Jules Maigret. The Maigret books have been translated into a large number of languages and have been televised in several countries. In Britain, Maigret was first played by Rupert Davies and later by Michael Gambon; a new Maigret series is due to be recorded in Britain starring Rowan Atkinson, an interesting challenge to see if he can persuade the audience to forget his previous creations, Blackadder and Mr Bean.

The Maigret books set in Paris seem to be woven out of the experiences Simenon had in the back streets of the city, the denizen of thieves, prostitutes, the destitute and violent criminals; but he also sets much of the action in his books in the homes of the outwardly respectable middle class, with a feeling of the decay and evil, twisted relationships that lurk behind their respectable doors and shuttered windows. However, Simenon also sets his Maigret books in the other countries that he visited. He was at the height of his creative powers when he was living in the United States and many of his books were set there, such as Trois chambres à Manhattan (1946) and Maigret à New York (1947.)

Maigret is a stocky, tall man, slightly overweight, who smokes a pipe and is very fond of alcohol although it is a matter of pride that he does not get intoxicated. He usually wears a heavy raincoat. His wife's name is Louise, although she is always known as Madame Maigret. They have no children, although they did have a baby that was still born. Maigret usually works with a small team of detectives, notably Lucan and Janvier, who respect him although they are wary of his bad temper when things are not going well. Maigret sometimes depends on police procedure but, more often, on intuition, which leads to long cat and mouse sessions in which he tried to wear down his suspects and intensive (and sometimes inhumane) interrogations that can go on for several hours and occasionally days.

Perhaps Simenon's work can best be explained by himself in an interview published in 1955: 'I am an artisan; I need to work with my hands. I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood. My characters – I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional. And I would like to make a man so that everybody, looking at him, would find his own problems in this man.' (The Paris Review, Summer 1955, interview by Carvel Collins.)

‘Maigret and the Burglar's Wife’
by Georges Simenon

(Note: Because this review is taken from an English translation I have used the British rank of Chief Inspector rather than Commissaire.)

'Ernestine Micou, alias 'Lofty' (now Jussiaume), who, when you arrested her seventeen years ago in the Rue de la Lune, stripped herself to take the mike out of you, requests the favour of an interview on a matter of most urgent and important business.'

This note, handed in at the Police Headquarters in Paris on a scorchingly hot summer day, transports Chief-Inspector Maigret back to a time when he was an inexperienced, young officer on the beat and intended to arrest Lofty, a young prostitute for theft. 'Calmly she'd taken off her wrap, her shift, and pants, and gone and lain down on the unmade bed, lighting a cigarette'... 'The whole thing was ludicrous. She was cool, quite passive, a little glint of irony showing in her colourless eyes.'

Lofty has come to ask Maigret for help. Her husband, Alfred Jussiaume, known as Sad Freddie, is a safe-breaker who has left Paris without warning and gone into hiding, but he contacted Lofty to say that on his last attempted robbery in a private house in Neuilly, he had been terrified by the sight of a dead body in the room; he said that it was a middle-aged woman, 'that her chest was all covered in blood, and that she was holding a telephone receiver in her hand.'

Although Maigret has doubts about Lofty's story, especially as no murders have been reported, he investigates to try and discover the house that Sad Freddie burgled. This leads him to the home of Guillaume Serre, a middle-aged dental surgeon who lives with his wife, Maria, and his elderly mother. Maigret discovers that Serre's wife is no longer there and Serre and his mother claim that Maria has left them to go back and live, perhaps permanently, in Amsterdam, in her native Holland. Serre and Madame Serre also claim that there has been no sign of burglary in their house.

Who is Maigret to believe? The prostitute and her husband, a habitual criminal? Or the respectable if obnoxious dentist and his mother? He follows his instinct, which leads to a long and harrowing interrogation and a psychologically satisfying conclusion to the investigation.

Maigret and the Burglar's wife is a book based on remarkably skilled characterisation and of exquisitely drawn contrasts. Lofty, whom Maigret recognises immediately when he sees her after many years: 'her long, pale face, the washed out eyes, the big over-made-up mouth that looked like a raw wound. He recognised also, in her glance, the quiet irony of those who've seen so much that nothing's any longer important in their eyes. She was simply dressed, with a light green straw hat, and she'd put on gloves.' And old Madame Serre,  'a little old woman, very dried up, dressed in black, who never passes the time of day with anybody and doesn't look easy to get on with' or as Maigret sees her first, 'the old lady who stood back to let them enter would not have looked out of place dressed as a nun... She'd an innate elegance and dignity which were remarkable.'

Another beautiful contrast is when Maigret goes to visit Lofty at home to question her further about her husband's claim. 'Maigret knocked at a door, which half-opened; Ernestine appeared in her underclothes and merely said: “It's you!” Then she went at once to fetch her dressing gown from the unmade bed, and slipped it on.'

This contrast is even stronger when describing the two sets of characters' living places. Lofty and Sad Freddie live in rooms above a café, in a situation full of noise and colour: 'The wall of the staircase was whitewashed, as in the country. One could hear the racket made by a crane unloading gravel from a barge a little further on... The window was open. There was a blood-red geranium. The bedspread was red too. The door stood open into a little kitchen, out of which came a good smell of coffee.'

The Serre's drawing room is that of wealthy people, but underneath there is the sense of a smothering stagnation. 'She opened, on the left, a pair of polished oaken doors, and Maigret was reminded more than ever of a convent or, better still, a rich parsonage. Even the soft, insidious smell reminded him of something; he didn't know what, he tried to remember. The drawing-room that she showed them into was lit only by daylight seeping through the slots of the shutters, and to enter it from outside was like stepping into a cool bath. The noises of the town, one felt, could never penetrate this far, and it was as if the house and everything in it had remained unchanged for more than a century.'

Although it was written over eighty years ago,
Maigret and the Burglar's Wife manages to combine the sense of a time past with a present-day observation of psychological twists. It is still an excellent read.

Note: At this time, Maigret and the Burglar's wife is not available as a new paperback or on Kindle, however there are several second-hand paperbacks available for sale.


Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her second book About the Children was published in May 2014. . Carol also writes a regular column featuring authors of the ‘Golden Age’ for the Mystery People monthly e-zine.


  1. Reading a lot of Simenon’s Maigrets and ‘romans durs’ over the years stimulated me to learn more about the author. Now, via Lizzie Hayes, I’ve lucked onto this biography by Carol Westron, which is chock-full of more insights and new details about the man than I’ve encountered in the biographical material I’ve read so far. In addition, the review of ‘Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife’ is provocative, effectively tempting one to read the story, without tipping Simeon’s hand. I agree with the accolade of “remarkably skilled characterization.” The prostitute and the burglar attract; the dentist and his mother grab. Thanks, Carol and Lizzie.

    1. Thank you, David. I really appreciate your comments and I'm glad you found the article informative. In my opinion, Simenon was an extraordinary character (the sort of man you wouldn't believe in if you read about him in a work of fiction) and an incredible writer. As you probably know, I write a regular monthly article for Mystery People on authors of the Golden Age, many of which Lizzie then publishes on her blog and I am also publishing them on my blog. Hopefully some of those articles may interest you as well.
      Thank you for your kind comments. Best wishes. Carol