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From Michael E. Grost's "A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection" site:

Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon's work shows the influence of Freeman Wills Crofts. His Inspector Maigret is a policeman, just like Crofts' Inspector French. Both officers solve crimes by patient, routine investigation, realistically depicted in step by step fashion by their authors. Maigret walking down a suburban street at the opening of his first published case, M. Gallet décédé (Maigret Stonewalled) (1931), reminds one of French sleuthing on suburban streets in The Box Office Murders (1929). Both do a lot of traveling, going to different cities. Both writers have an international orientation, with their characters coming from all over Europe, and their detectives solving international crimes. Both are nationally based, French in Scotland Yard, Maigret with the Sûreté, and both interface with a lot of local police officers. Both study physical clues, and make deductions from evidence left behind at crime scenes. Both detectives are married, and discuss their work with their patient wives. Both have to use considerable tact to deal with difficult suspects.

While Simenon's works reflect Crofts' in their detective work, characters, and social background, their plotting technique does not completely follow the standard interests of the British realists. There is little emphasis on alibis, or on the "breakdown of identity" used to create them - although Simenon characters often have more than one identity, often to aid in their criminal activities. Science and engineering play a smaller role in the Simenon stories than in Crofts, although there is the murdered man's interest in mechanical gizmos in M. Gallet décédé. Simenon will later introduce a doctor detective, Jean Dollent, in the book The Little Doctor (collected 1943). Physician detectives are part of the traditions of the realist school. The careful account of Simenon's characters' financial status and activities, also reminds one of such British realist writers as Crofts and, especially, Henry Wade. Simenon's characters are often middle class, just as in the realists. Crofts included a portrait of adultery in The Cask; Simenon has may unhappy couples in his novels. Simenon's non-mystery works in which guilty people are psychologically pursued by their crimes perhaps owe something to the inverted detective stories of which the British realists were so fond. The gloomy, downbeat tone of some of Simenon's work also reflects the tragic tone of much British realist writing.

Many of Maigret's interviews with suspects are essentially psychological portraits of the characters in the book. This technique is very popular in modern mystery fiction, especially private eye tales, and one associates it with Raymond Chandler, and even more with Chandler's follower Ross MacDonald. But here it is in Simenon, in a fully developed form in the first Maigret novel M. Gallet décédé (1931), long before either Chandler or MacDonald. This gives this Simenon book a peculiarly modern flavor. Many of the chapters seem more like the detective fiction of the 1990's than of the 1930's.

The many complex, original criminal schemes in Simenon's tales remind one of the similar criminal operations in Crofts books like The Pit-Prop Syndicate (1922) and The Box Office Murders (1929). Simenon's plotting style often involves two separate plots. The first is a scheme by some crook; the second is a counterscheme developed by a second crook in response to the first. The detective and the reader only see a confused trail of evidence left by the two schemes. Their job is to try to see into the two level scheme behind it. Sometimes this works brilliantly, as in "Death in a Department Store". (This story has also been anthologized by Ellery Queen as "The Slipper Fiend".) But all too often, it results in a non fair play mystery. It is hard to see how any reader could deduce the real nature of the plot and counterplot from the clues given. They are just too complex, and largely hidden from the reader, with only a handful of scattered clues suggesting what is really going on. And M. Gallet décédé, while it starts out with some vivid writing, eventually devolves into a series of tangled coincidences.

La Nuit du carrefour (Maigret at the Crossroads) (1931) is one of Simenon's most Croftsian works. Maigret eventually uncovers a criminal scheme similar to those Crofts wrote about in The Pit-Prop Syndicate and The Box Office Murders. As in Crofts, this scheme is more oriented to fraud than murder: it's a commercial enterprise. And as in Crofts, it centers around a technological location. What seems less Croftsian is the extraordinarily creepy atmosphere of the opening sections (Chapters 1 - 6). Reading these chapters made me extremely nervous. I have no idea of how Simenon achieves this effect, because there is nothing overtly sinister going on. There are no supernatural events à la John Dickson Carr, and no conventional suspense technique or events. There is just an apparently normal middle class suburb. But the reader constantly waits for some totally ominous catastrophe to erupt. The sheer placidity of everything is frightening. Maigret himself seems to do no real detection, but rather to just stand around and observe the suspects. His lack of action engenders a helpless feeling in the reader. So do the hints that something monstrous or abnormal is going on at the house of The Three Widows in the tale. Paradoxically, when the solution finally comes, it is far less frightening than the body of the story. It deals with mere criminality, something that seems far more familiar to the reader than the nameless dread which dominates most of the novel. Also, here Maigret finally takes action and does things.

The great director Jean Renoir filmed La Nuit du carrefour the next year (1932), in collaboration with Simenon as a scriptwriter. I have never had a chance to see this film. Andrew Sarris thought it was botched, Jean-Luc Godard thought it the greatest French detective film, and André Bazin ignored it entirely in his book on Renoir. One could see why it would appeal to Renoir: the character of Else and her relations to the men in the tale recall Renoir's previous film, La Chienne (1931). Also, the story involves a complex cat's cradle of relationships among the characters, looking forward to Renoir's Toni (1934) and The Rules of the Game (1939).

The film director Akira Kurosawa was a big fan of Simenon, and he reportedly wrote his detective movie Stray Dog (1949) first as a novel, before shooting it as a film. Kurosawa's detectives are policemen, like Maigret, who engage in realistic, ploddingly detailed police work. Like Simenon, and the British realists before him, Kurosawa explores a great many locations, in this case, the poorer districts of Tokyo. The extreme heat, which constantly afflicts the characters, also is present in such Simenon novels as M. Gallet décédé, where it affects his heavily built Maigret perhaps more than it would Kurosawa's athletic star Toshiro Mifune.

Simenon was born Georges Sim, but eventually changed his name for literary purposes. This is an odd coincidence, in that three detective writers all have similar names. The hard-boiled writer whose pseudonym was Paul Cain was born George Sims, and there is also the Doyle follower George R. Sims in the 1890's.


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