The Belgian novelist Georges Simenon (1903-1989), who wrote in French, was one of the most productive and popular writers of the twentieth century. Author of more than 500 novels, translated into dozens of languages, he was most famous for his detective novels featuring Inspector Maigret.
Georges Simenon was born in Liège on Feb. 13, 1903. An able pupil, he was determined to become a writer at the age of 11 and left school 4 years later. In 1919 he began working as a reporter for a Liège newspaper and after military service published his first novel under the pen name of Georges Sim. Between 1921 and 1934 he wrote nearly 200 novels, which he published under more than a dozen pseudonyms. Simenon moved to Paris in 1924, and in 1930 he began the famous Maigret series of detective novels, which he published under his own name. Through the dozens of novels in which he appears, as well as through many films and television adaptations of them, Inspector Maigret, of police headquarters in Paris, has become as well known as Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Maigret, a sensible and tolerant but not brilliant man with simple tastes, puzzles his way to the solution of his cases by patient thought and insight—all the while peacefully puffing his pipe. The added psychological dimension enriches the reader's normal interest in learning the solution to the mystery.
For many critics, however, Simenon's best novels are those that lie outside the Maigret series. In the 1930s he wrote many other thrillers, a notable example being L'Homme qui regardait passer les trains (1938; The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By). Pedigree, written during the war years and published in 1948, is a largely autobiographical novel that presents a powerful and convincing picture of the life of a boy and his parents in Liège from 1903 to 1918. Subsequently Simenon wrote novels in which the psychological analysis of the leading character, exceptional in some way, forms the center of interest. Examples include Les Volets verts (1950; The Heart of a Man), which portrays the closing stages in the life of a great actor, and Le Petit saint (1965; The Little Saint), which treats the formative years in the life of a great artist.
Simenon is above all a storyteller; his readers are immediately gripped by their desire to know "what happens next" and by the compelling atmosphere. An astonishing range of characters move through Simenon's world; he said, "Some people collect stamps; I collect human beings." He excludes politics, religion, history, and metaphysics from his books, concentrating on psychology and on the minor details, often extraordinary, of human existence. Simenon's style is deliberately simple, "since I do not write for a single language." He aims at a kind of "universal vocabulary," building up action and atmosphere through careful brief touches.
Simenon retired from writing fiction in 1974 after producing a range of novels, short stories, diaries, and other works. His last long novel was Intimate Memoirs (1984), written as an attempt to explore the causes of his daughter's suicide in 1978. Although he described himself as a craftsman, his popular Maigret novels as well as his more serious works came to be admired by distinguished French critics. Nobel laureate André Gide called him "perhaps the greatest and most genuine novelist of today's French literature." He died in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1989.
Many studies of Simenon's life and work have been published in recent years: Assouline, Pierre, Simenon: A Biography, Knopf, 1997; Bertrand, Alain, Maigret, Labor (Bruxelles, Belgium), 1994; Bertrand, Alain, Georges Simenon, La Manufacture, 1988; Marnham, Patrick, The Man Who Wasn't Maigret, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994; Eskin, Stanley, Simenon: A Critical Biography, McFarland & Co., 1987; Bresler, Fenton, The Mystery of Georges Simenon: A Biography, Beaufort Books, 1983; Young, Trudee, Georges Simenon: A Checklist of His "Maigret" & Other Mystery Novels & Short Stories in French & in English Translations, Scarecrow Press, 1976; Foord, Peter, Georges Simenon: A Bibliography of the British First Editions in Hardback and Paperback and/or the Principal French and American Editions, with a Guide to Their Value, Dragonby, 1988; Raymond, John, Simenon in Court (1968), a penetrating critique that contains much valuable information.