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Maigret and the Penguin Books

some extracts from the chapter
‘Penguin and Maigret: a little publishing history’

by James Mackay


Penguin 739 was published in January 1950. Its cover design had some small but elegant experimental variations to the layout that Tschichold had refined two years before: a white Penguin and lower case lettering on the spine, and a fine border line within the back cover frame, but not the thin rules edging the white band on the front cover that appeared on a few books of this period.

Already, two months before its publication, negotiation had begun on adding more Simenon titles to the Penguin list ... they were eventually published, with a reprint of 739, as a ‘Ten’ in January 1952. The print run was 70,000 of each.


After Simenon had moved to the USA in 1945 and met, then married, Denise, they had begun to see difficulties in both Sainsbury’s translations and Routledge’s publishing policy. Denise energetically assumed the rôle of agent for her husband. She, by birth French Canadian, was bilingual, and Georges became a competent English speaker. He realised that Geoffrey Sainsbury had gone beyond merely translating the books, making changes to interpret them for English readers and at times ‘improving’ the plot, acting almost as co-author. By 1952, Simenon had ended his arrangement with Sainsbury, and was considering changing his London publisher too.

[... After long negotiations, quoted in detail from the archive ...]

a deal was done with Hamish Hamilton, which commissioned new translators and published the first of their work, Daphne Woodward’s Maigret in Montmartre and Alan Hodge’s Maigret’s Mistake, before Christmas 1954. In hardback the new translations kept pace with Simenon’s work, and from 1958 Penguin did too. A ‘Five’ that year included three Maigrets. In 1959–62 Penguin issued another seven quite recent stories from Hamish Hamilton’s stock and reprinted several from earlier years. Maigret was selling well, and Rupert Davies was playing him well in a BBC television series which ran for three years from late 1960.

Several of its episodes were earlier stories, the rights for which remained with Routledge. The well-mannered amicality of 1948–52 had been replaced by defensive hostility on the part of Routledge, and eventually the rights to some of its out-of-print titles reverted by default to Simenon. Meanwhile, Penguin acquired a bundle of the first books, published by Hurst & Blackett in the early 1930s. Only old translations existed Many were by Geoffrey Sainsbury and, as part of the transfer, Simenon required new ones. Penguin commissioned these through Robert Baldick, an Oxford don who had done a lot of work on Penguin Classics. Five numbers [1900–04] were allocated and English titles decided early in the editorial process. Publication was planned for 1962. But the translations did not materialise. Four of the numbers became a conspicuous gap in the Penguin series: only 1901 emerged, five years later.

Tony Godwin had become Penguin’s fiction editor in 1959 and led the negotiations with Routledge and the Simenons. He sought other opportunities. The editorial files3 contain long manuscript lists of Simenon’s stories, their successive titles in earlier translations and in French, and the holders of rights in them, as Godwin tried to establish what scope there was to extend the Penguin list. Eventually, this was achieved by commissioning more new translations of early books.


The task of the Maigret’s translator of has been found by many not to be straightforward. Simenon used a very limited vocabulary to describe characters and localities, and to create redolent atmosphere. His economy of language was a skill acquired young, in his journalistic career. Translating strong, short sentences, closely connecting culture and language, and keeping their tone, is clearly difficult. Tony Godwin thought it wise to submit completed translations for a ‘second opinion’: he wanted to achieve the highest standard not just for Penguin’s reputation but to ensure that the Simenons were satisfied.

The serious task was not without its amusements. Some of the old editions proved harder to secure than were the rights to reprint them. Thirty years on, no copy could be found of Maigret and M. Labbe, the first English title of Le port des Brumes. Eventually, one was found in Shoreditch library, and only returned after ‘all editorial marks’ had been removed. L’ombre chinoise had not previously been translated. Jean Stewart was entrusted with Denise Simenon’s personal file copy, and told firmly that it must on no account go astray.

Hamish Hamilton’s cadre of translators contained part-timers as well as professionals. The adventuress Moura Budberg’s Maigret and the Minister was included in the third Simenon

Omnibus in 1971, while Julian Maclaren-Ross’ Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife became a Penguin on it own in 1959. He had translated Maigret et la grande perche for Hamish Hamilton in 1954 while he was living temporarily in a bedsit in Oxford (he rarely lived anywhere permanently). While doing this, he composed in an early ‘franglais’ Maigret in Oxford, ... at least as much a pastiche of Maclaren-Ross’ own life, characterised by his continual search for the next drink, as a successful physical translation of Maigret from the Île de la Cité to Radcliffe Square.


The fourteenth Omnibus, in 1979, was the last. The series continued without that specific name, other than in internal documents. Five more three-story volumes and two volumes of (almost all) the Maigret short stories appeared in the 1980s, using the larger B format to balance their thickness. Their Penguin numbers and publishing sequence was a bit jumbled, and bears clarifying:

4676FifteenthMaigret’s Ghost 1982
4930short storiesMaigret’s Pipe1985
4931short storiesMaigret’s Christmas1981
5160SixteenthMaigret in Exile 1983
5468SeventeenthMaigret’s Rival1985
6651EighteenthMaigret Meets a Milord1983
6652NineteenthMaigret at the Crossroads1983

The last two on the list reprinted the six 1963 translations done for Penguin; the others continued the first paperback releases of Hamish Hamilton’s more recent work.

Simenon died in 1989, by no means forgotten. But the Penguin list for that summer included only five paired volumes of romans durs; another on its own; the last of the Omnibuses, Maigret’s Rival; and two thin B-format Maigrets, part of a short series of selected works from many other bestselling ‘Classic Crime’ writers.

More recent history will be for others to report upon: the files so far deposited in the Bristol archive run only into the 1980s. But the illustrated bibliography which follows catalogues each of the relatively infrequent issues of the 1990s and 2000s: a tie-in to a 1992 television series with Michael Gambon in the title rôle; a 1995 Penguin 60; twelve reissues and two new translations issued as Penguin Classics to mark the 2003 centenary of the author’s birth; half as many, back to A format, as Red Classics in 2006 – both these sets with covers in polychromic artwork which could not be more different from their predecessors of half a century earlier – and a handsome Penguin USA edition of ten in 2006/07. These were all previous translations, two even by the frowned-upon Geoffrey Sainsbury, from 1939/40.

But if history has faded, the present and the future are bright. Rights once again needed buying out, from a company which had gone into receivership. This was achieved by the author’s son John, and they are now with Peters Fraser Dunlop, licensed in the UK and the USA to Penguin. Under Josephine Greywoode as editor, Penguin embarked in 2013 on 75 new translations. It is issuing all the Maigrets, after an opening flurry, at about one a month, in as good a match as can be made to the order in which they were first published. By late 2018, either in paperback B format or as e-books, Simenon’s sometimes obsessional English readers will at last be able to run through the whole of Maigret in one edition.

Meanwhile, we hope that this brief guide to the more complicated past of one of Penguin’s best bestsellers will help readers as well as collectors and conservators to find that elusive missing Maigret.

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