Novelist Georges Simenon with the English actor Rupert Davies, who played Inspector Maigret, in the BBC series (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The salvation of crime fiction

In praise of delectably dark escapism

Artillery Row

Last summer I published a book about the Second World War. Victory in the West was my account of the Western Allied advance into Germany in 1945. I had already accompanied my warriors onto the D-Day beaches and through the Battle of the Bulge in earlier volumes. This was the end of their story and of my trilogy. I divided the account into thirds. In the first, they fought their way through slush and mud to the river Rhine. In the second part, the three Allied army groups — Montgomery’s Anglo-Canadian Twenty-First in the north, Bradley’s all-American Twelfth in the centre and the lesser-known Franco-US Sixth Army Group led by Jacob Devers to the south — crossed the great river that once formed the eastern boundary of the Roman empire. In the final third, these nearly four million troops fanned out into Holland, Germany and Austria. 

Although I had researched their stories for years, I was still unprepared for what all the formations uncovered. On 4 April, the first death camp at Ohrdruf was liberated by GIs. Technically a sub-camp of Buchenwald, reached a week later, it was occupied by only the dead and those about to die. General “Blood and Guts” George Patton was physically sick when he visited. In his company were Eisenhower and Bradley, who later wrote of their revulsion. On 15 April the British entered Belsen with its piles of corpses crawling with lice. On 29 April, more Americans reached Dachau, outside Munich, en route passing a locked trainload of nearly 1,000 souls, abandoned to die horribly of starvation.

Darker medical reports detailed evidence of human cannibalism at Belsen

The more I read, the more I realised that most Allied service personnel had come across these Nazi camps, where inmates were worked to death, deliberately starved, experimented upon. When the Allies approached, they were gassed, drowned, burned alive or abandoned. The Allies had not realised that the Third Reich had enslaved around twelve million from occupied lands in 45,000 camps, who comprised 26 per cent of Germany’s workforce. They were not paid, abused by their guards and subsisted on minimal rations. These numbers hit me like a sledgehammer. I was unaware of the scale of slave labour, or its use beyond camps like Auschwitz. 

Over the years I have met and interviewed literally thousands of WW2 veterans, but it’s the camp survivors you remember. I was flying to Australia once and seated next to a charming and chatty Swiss lady. In the heat she removed her thin cardigan, and there on the inside of her left forearm was a tattooed number. Hanne (Johanna) noticed my shock but was quite without concern, having carried the mark since her late teens, fifty years earlier. She told me tales of hunger, cold, exhaustion and liberation. 

What she didn’t tell me were the stories I read when researching my book. Littering the memoirs of the liberated and the liberators, official reports of military units and legal depositions, were the accounts of inmates dying of joy in the moment of their release. The starving wolfed down chocolate and perished as it tore up their emaciated insides. The thirsty drank themselves to death, whilst others were overcome by nicotine poisoning on smoking their first cigarette in years. Some rushed to the high fences to greet the Allied soldiers, only to be electrocuted because no one had switched off the current. Darker medical reports detailed evidence of human cannibalism at Belsen, dog-maulings and infanticide at Buchenwald, experiments at Dachau, burnings at Ohrdruf, being pushed off cliffs at Mauthausen.

My final burst of writing Victory took place during the 2020 lockdown. Surrounded by books, papers and archives, I had no escape from this inhumane darkness. I was haunted by daydreams of watchtowers and fences. Although I had visited all the Nazi camps included in my books, personally taken part in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, witnessed human barbarism in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, I was unprepared for the depths of mass depravity I stumbled over in accounts of 1945. Some victims received rudimentary counselling, but I realised their Allied liberators had none. At the 78-year mark, I felt their collective horrors reaching out to engulf me. In the midst of the Covid pandemic, I literally had nowhere to run.

I was reminded of a grainy 1942 Nazi newsreel showing the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Wagner’s Die Meistersinger overture. The rudimentary setting was the AEG turbine factory in Berlin. The audience were machinists and secretaries, civilians and convalescent soldiers. You can find it on YouTube. All wore greatcoats to keep the wintry chill at bay, but the camera’s emphasis was on faces. They were locked, trancelike, into the music, as if to keep the reality of the war, with its casualties and its air raids, at bay. 

I realised I needed a similar alternate reality, so I turned to the writing of others. The genre I settled into was crime fiction. It took me far away from mass murder motivated by a doctrine of bloodlust, into psychological games between detective and killer. In them, I found I was able to leave the fences and watchtowers, the guards and inmates behind. I wandered through the works of several authors before settling on one. 

Initially, I perused Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels. It’s always interesting to see what a contemporary from the same year of birth has achieved. His lasting creation, the smoking, boozy Inspector John Rebus, is a fantastically flawed character. I know Edinburgh well, but found Rankin’s ability to hold the reader’s hand whilst he turns over stones and shows you what wriggles underneath, was all too believable. It is the mark of an outstanding writer to instantly transport the reader to somewhere else. Yet, the story lines of the 22 Rebus books (and counting), set in Edinburgh’s gangster underworld, were too dark for my escapist needs.

The solution lay on my bookshelves, untouched

I drifted in the direction of “Scandi Noir”, to the late Henning Mankell. In a sequence of 12 novels, his Kurt Wallender, an inspector with the Swedish police, is also (like Rebus) at odds with his family, with a similar ability to offend his superiors, the great and the good. The strength of the Rankin and Mankell novels is to convincingly take the reader to the grey, bleak landscapes of Edinburgh or Ystad in Sweden. Both inspectors are fond of music. Talking us through their favourite melodies allows their creators to reach out and connect with us, stitching us into their plots. Song is an international language, and the device removes any sense of Rebus and Wallender being “foreign” to an multi-national readership.

Still I needed something lighter. For a while I nestled happily with Laurie R. King’s clever creation of Mary Russell, the much younger wife of Sherlock Holmes. Set in the decade from 1915–25, in the 17 novels to date, Russell takes over Dr John Watson’s narrative role and indeed the lead in detection, which sees a much older Holmes more in the background. The period was good for me, but I needed more of a detecting challenge — where the author lays out maybe half a dozen suspects, then plays with the reader, as does an owl with a mouse, laying false scents for all of them. 

The solution lay on my bookshelves, untouched. Gathering dust were a few editions of Georges Simenon’s Commissaire Maigret series, of which he wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories between 1930-72. All now republished by Penguin, here was an oeuvre into which I could settle, without fear of it soon ending. So far, I have blazed my way through 23 of them and can now offer a few thoughts on their attraction and Simenon’s formulae. 

He is very good at playing chess with his readers. Sucked into his various — believable — plots, I have yet to ascertain the killer until Simenon chooses to tell us. Unlike Sherlock Holmes (to whom he owes a great deal) or his near contemporary Hercule Poirot (a pastiche), Maigret works alone, spending much time pondering his case notes by pipe. There is a cast of younger detectives, notably Lucas, Janvier, Lapointe and Torrence, who like Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars, come and go, but the action revolves around Maigret.

In 1926, Simenon undertook a lengthy sea voyage, which gave him a life-long love of boating. The following year, he had a houseboat built, the Ostrogoth, in which he and his family navigated the French canal system. His love of wood on water comes through as a motif in nearly every Maigret case, which are usually set on the coast, a riverbank, near a canal or lock, or occasionally on an island. The titles often betray this. Simenon uses current and tide to reflect human moods — washing stains, literal and metaphorical, downriver, through lock gates and out with the flood. Associated with the water, there is much fishing that takes place, though it is often we who are caught in his net or on his hook. Like many an accomplished novelist, weather also darkens or lightens the atmosphere. Lighthouses perform as advertised, illuminating, whilst storms heighten the moments of drama, receding as the ill-doer’s identity is uncovered. 

Maigret is a middle-aged, married, childless career detective, beholden to no one. He is mature enough to understand and often anticipate human responses to the Seven Deadly Sins, in the way younger policemen might not. Simenon puts much emphasis on Maigret’s irrefutable logic, brainpower and observation of minutiae, forming part of a model of detection that has stretched from Sherlock Holmes to Friar William of Baskerville in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose

When he first started writing detective fiction, Simenon saw crime as a facet of human nature, then an innovative approach, but much imitated in modern crime novels. This is how he differs from the Agatha Christie’s and Dorothy L. Sayers’ murder-in-the-conservatory dramas, where the heroes receive authentic characterisation, whereas the villains are more cardboard. Maigret, on the other hand, might have said, “I don’t solve crimes, I solve people.

The manipulation of time is a signature Simenon device

Simenon’s work is serenely confident in scene setting. With almost Hemingway-esque brevity, he places you, the reader, wherever he wants you, in time and space. There is no resistance because of his skill with detail. Consider this from My Friend Maigret: “Sunday lay so heavily in the air as to become almost nauseating. Maigret used to claim openly, half seriously, half in fun, that he had always had the knack of sensing a Sunday from his bed, without even having to open his eyes.” So much packed into two sentences. As he observed in an interview, “I consider myself an impressionist, because I work by little touches. I believe a ray of sun on a nose is as important as a deep thought.” Above all, the books are dialogue-driven. Speech and vocabulary, even in translation, can soon age a work, but not so here. 

The manipulation of time is another signature Simenon device. Not only do chapters switch between first and third person narratives, but Simenon is a master of bouncing his story along by flashbacks, flashforwards and in media res, usually the preserve of only the most polished of writers. You know you are getting your money’s worth in following these leaps, for Simenon is also playing with his reader — “come on, keep up!” The jumps serve to speed or slow time, and they can quickly nail down an important backstory.

 Simenon himself was an avid pipe-smoker and projected this signature onto Maigret, perhaps also as a nod to the detective of Baker Street. So, too, was Maigret’s distinctive black suit, overcoat with a velvet collar, and chapeau melon (bowler hat), which accompany him even to the Côte d’Azur. Sadly, the bowler has been translated into a trilby in every film and television adaption. Simenon loved clothes, possessing 60 pairs of handmade shoes, and thus lingers in the detail of his subjects’ dress. For him, clothes are part of character. Like Holmes, Maigret is always clocking dusty shoes, dirty cuffs, fake jewellery, manicured fingers, cheap or well-made clothing, as indicators of the inner person.

Jules Maigret, assiduous public servant, with Madame Maigret patiently waiting at home with supper (for which her husband frequently fails to return) frequently encounters females in distress. We normally learn immediately whether they are flat-chested or full-bosomed. As gowns and negligees fall open, we are told of the pert contents glimpsed therein, or the heavy breast lying outside the silk. These details are curiously at odds with the vice-free Maigret we have come to know.

The reason is simple. Georges Simenon, the one-man writing factory, who churned out more than 500 novels, was a randy old goat. In conversation with the Italian film director Federico Fellini in 1977, Maigret’s creator boasted, “You know, Fellini, I believe that, in my life, I have been more Casanova than you. I made the calculation a year or so ago that I have had 10,000 women since the age of thirteen and a half. It wasn’t at all a vice. I have not the slightest sexual vice, but I have the need to communicate.” His second wife reckoned the total was closer to 1,200, most of them prostitutes. In American brothels, she would chat to the girls whilst her husband cavorted upstairs with one of them. Most authors transfer their personas onto their characters, but in this case, the inspector’s repressed voyeurism is the only dud note in the Maigret canon.

Apart from this, Simenon himself seems to have had a dark occupation in the France of 1940–44. No one is quite sure whether he was persecutor or persecuted. There is conflicting evidence for both. He hints at the truth in one of his finest works, a stand-alone novel called The Snow Was Dirty. Yes, he had his dark side, and he treated his women in an unconscionably chauvinistic manner. Nonetheless, Simenon’s folk live in a lighter world than those in Rankin’s Edinburgh or Mankell’s Sweden. That was what I needed, in order to heal from wallowing in the Nazi depravity of 1945.

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