THERE’S nothing like revisiting an old friend. So much forgotten pleasure to be derived from taking giant steps back to the very early years.
In so doing we revive experiences that only now are revealed and recognised for their formative effect on so much that followed.
As a youth, I voraciously and randomly devoured almost any reading matter that came my way. There was no distracting television and the radio offered little beyond the news, the daily brief excitement of Paul Temple‘s nail biting adventures and late night horror tales spun by the sonorous voice of Valentine Dyall (aka The Man in Black).
My escape was to go obediently and willingly to bed at the dictated time and become lost in in the printed page. Eventually there would be a knock at the door followed by a parental command that “It’s time to turn the light out.”
Which was the signal to burrow deep under the covers, bring my torch out from beneath the pillow … and continue reading.
Over time I took in the young person’s staples of Biggles, Masterman Ready, Black Beauty, Treasure Island, Alice and all her adventures; and on through the now dog-eared but still treasured Romany, Muriel and Doris (a sixth birthday present) and Wind in the Willows to another still-owned delight (from Christmas 1942), the very literary The Dog That Went to Heaven.
Eventually I stumbled upon Maigret, Georges Simenon’s lugubrious chain-smoking detective who stalked the darker side of Paris in his pursuit of murderers and sundry other ne’er do wells.
This was something else on several levels. Fortunately my parents did not deter me from reading such “adult” fare.
For starters, the writing differed greatly from my usual fare. It was what I would probably then have called “grown up.” I had neither the knowledge nor vocabulary to describe it otherwise. Nor was there anyone with who to discuss my reaction; we learnt the 3Rs and never deviated into deeper discussions. Certainly not of literary structure and formats.
The deeds that Maigret spent all his time unravelling were also beyond my understanding in a world with no in-your-face telecasts to shock. And being shielded from the world’s horrors by protective parents who blocked my view of the cinema screen when displaying newsreels showing the first pictures out of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
The characters who peopled these usually quite slim novels were from another world, even if it was only a few miles away across the English Channel.
They were darker, rougher, withdrawn, secretive and burdened by gloom. Beyond that, their lives were way beyond my youthful experience, not even imagined from all else that I had previously read. There was love and death in all their shades. Life in all its many shades. Gentleness and brutality coexisting.
It drew me in with all the ease of a practiced seductress.
It is a tribute to Simenon’s writing that the books left such an impression. A tutorial that has last down the years. He is sparing with his words. Sentences are short, terse but always effective. The vocabulary is deceptively simple yet so telling. A superb example to all writers of the effectiveness of the less is more approach.
In those distant times, few of these attributes were recognised as the underlying reason for his power to draw me in.
Back then, they came across as simply damned good stories. Engaging, whirling mysteries that puzzled the reader as much as they did Maigret as he tamped his pipe and pondered the duplicities that faced him.
Much later came the realisation the precise weaving of his prose was as much an attraction as the plots themselves. Complex tales wrapped in lucid writing. Lessons to be learned with more purpose and enjoyment than anything offered in the classroom.
The three books reviewed here are freshly available as Penguin Classics in a project to reissue the entire series of seventy-five novels and twenty-eight short stories featuring Inspector Maigret.
One, Pietr the Latvian, was the book in which Maigret first appeared – in September 1929.
Simenon describes his “birth” occurred when sitting in a coffee “one sunny morning.” He had drunk “one, two, maybe three small schnapps laced with a dash of bitters” – a scene similar to many such that appear throughout the Maigret books. An hour later, now “slightly sleepy”, he began to imagine “a large powerfully built gentleman I thought would make a passable inspector”.
And the rest, as they say, is history. With not only crime fiction but also all writers eager to hone their prose, forever in his debt.
It has been a joy to revisit these pleasures from my past. A true triple treat – and many more await.
Highly recommended to crime fiction readers and writers alike. Timeless.