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John Banville

An Inspector Calls

Pietr the Latvian
By Georges Simenon & translated by David Bellos (Penguin Classics 162pp 6.99)

The Late Monsieur Gallet
By Georges Simenon & translated by Anthea Bell (Penguin Classics 176pp 6.99)

The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien
By Georges Simenon & translated by Linda Coverdale (Penguin Classics 144pp 6.99)
Simenon: pipe at the ready

To start with, appropriately, a confession of guilt. Although there could be no greater admirer than I of Georges Simenon, I had not until now read a single one of his Maigret novels. The Simenon I know and revere is the author of such extraordinary fictions as Dirty Snow, Monsieur Monde Vanishes and The Strangers in the House. These are examples of what he called his romans durs, or 'hard' novels, and they represent the achievement he was most proud of, and rightly so. Yet many readers are unaware of these works; for them, Simenon is notable solely as the creator of one of the most famous, most believable, most enduring and endearing fictional sleuths, Detective Chief Inspector Jules Maigret of the Paris Flying Squad.

Pietr the Latvian is the first novel in which Maigret figures, and it is the first in the complete Maigret series - 75 titles in all - which Penguin will be publishing, in new versions by various translators, at the rate of one a month over the coming years. It is a splendid undertaking: what a pleasure it will be to have all the books in a uniform edition.

Pietr-le-Letton, as it was originally called, was published in serial form in the French weekly magazine Ric et Rac in 1930. It was a great success, and the second book in the series, The Late Monsieur Gallet, published the following year, was launched with a spectacular party, the invitations to which came in the form of police records, while actors dressed as policemen tended the doors. One can to some extent see why Simenon the showman was never fully accepted by the Parisian literary world, although André Gide, to his eternal credit, hailed him as 'the most genuine novelist we have had in literature'. Maigret sprang to life fully formed and this is how Simenon described his birth:

I recall sitting in a café one sunny morning ... I'd had one, two, maybe three small schnapps laced with a dash of bitters. In any case, an hour later, slightly sleepy, I began to imagine a large powerfully built gentleman I thought would make a possible inspector. As the day wore on, I added various accessories: a pipe, a bowler hat, a thick overcoat with a velvet collar. And since it was cold and damp ... I put a cast-iron stove in his office.

What is perhaps most remarkable in that passage is the nonchalant mention of the two or three glasses of schnapps-and-bitters in the morning (small wonder that an hour later Simenon was slightly sleepy). All his life he was a great drinker - numerous bottles of wine every day, driven home with cocktails and the odd beer - and an even greater womaniser. Talking to the film director Federico Fellini in 1977 Simenon confessed, or boasted, 'I did a sum a year or two ago and since the age of 13 and a half I have had 10,000 women.' Later, his long-suffering wife, Denyse, recalculated the figure to 1,200. Obviously the stolid and uxorious Maigret was not a self-portrait. Early on in Pietr the Latvian the figure of Simenon's hero is precisely delineated:

He was a big, bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves and quickly wore through new trousers. He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there. His assertive presence had often irked many of his own colleagues.

As a law enforcer Maigret is highly ambiguous. In the first three novels in which he features - The Late Monsieur Gallet and The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien will be published shortly - he gets his man, all right, and justice of a sort is done, but there is little satisfaction in it for him, and he ends up sadder though not all that much wiser. If one were to wish for the polar opposite of Hercule Poirot, Maigret would be it, even though he has just as many little grey cells as Agatha Christie's famous Belgian.

Pietr the Latvian is a somewhat rough diamond. Clearly it was written at speed, and while one would not go so far as to say that the result is slapdash, much of the writing is clumsy or unfocused - a writer can be judged for laziness or shameless haste by the frequency with which he uses exclamation marks, and in this book they abound. The plot is great fun but pure hokum, though the ending, with Maigret and his quarry in a hotel room together sharing a bottle of rum while their drenched clothes are drying in front of a stove, is striking for both its poignancy and its verisimilitude.

When he put his mind to it and employed all his skills Simenon was a great writer, and even in this rather dusty little novel there are moments when the genius shows through. No one was more skilled at setting a scene with the fewest words and the minimum of fuss. Here are three examples, the first from Pietr the Latvian:

The station loudspeaker announced the departure of a local train. Somebody was running somewhere. Beside one of the carriages of the Ñtoile du Nord there was a small group waiting for something. Three of them, in railway company livery.

Next, the removal of the remains of the late Monsieur Gallet: 'The undertakers' men were talking under their breath out in the sunlight, close to the window ... A little later, the stretcher bumped into the corridor walls as it was carried in. Madame Gallet uttered a small sob, and her son patted her on the shoulder while still looking elsewhere.' In The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, a young man has shot himself in a hotel bedroom - Simenon had a fascination with hotels and bedrooms, and even gave one of the romans durs the title Three Bedrooms in Manhattan - leaving behind his pathetically meagre dinner: 'On the table lay the two sausage bread rolls, still wrapped in paper. A fly was sitting on them.'

The Hanged Man is the best of the three books under consideration here. It is based on a murky episode in Simenon's youth in Liège, when he was running with a dissolute group of bohemians and would-be artists calling themselves 'La Caque'. On a winter night the group met for a session of drunken debauchery, and in the morning one of their number, Joseph Jean Kleine - he was well named, being of slight stature - was found hanging by his scarf from the door-knocker of the Church of Saint-Pholien. Was it suicide, as at first it seemed, or murder? And how significant was it that Simenon had been the last person to see Kleine alive? The incident continued to haunt the author for many years. In the novel based on it, Maigret solves the riddle of the young man's death, but in real life the riddle remained. Who was to blame? 'I plead not guilty on our behalf,' Simenon later wrote, yet went on, 'in the last resort, wasn't it us who killed him?' Maigret and the seamy world in which he moves were not purely the inventions of a prodigious imagination.

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John Banville's latest novel is Ancient Light. His Philip Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde, written under the pen-name Benjamin Black, will be published early next year.

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