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An ageless Maigret

As Penguin republish 75 of Simenon’s detective stories, Simon Willis finds the master of the genre well served in translation

Simon Willis | January/February 2014

ENGLISH TITLE The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien
ORIGINAL TITLE Le Pendu De Saint-Pholien
AUTHOR Georges Simenon
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE French
TRANSLATOR Linda Coverdale

Inspector Maigret—resolute, taciturn, "a pachyderm plodding inexorably towards its goal"—was Simenon's most indelible character, and by far his busiest. This was one of ten Maigret books that Simenon wrote in 1931 alone. There are 75 in all, now being republished by Penguin at the rate of one a month. He was a master of northern-European drear, dusky railway stations and seedy hotels. This investigation begins with all three, and a suicide in Holland. He was also a master of ambiguity. The suicide may or may not be connected with a crime, but either way Maigret's determined suspicions are its proximate cause. The story rivets you with its reversals. By the time you get to the climax, the line between victim and perpetrator is as foggy as the weather. 

Linda Coverdale's new translation achieves what translations should: invisibility. When he was young, Simenon got some advice from an estimable source—Colette told him to "cut, cut, cut". His prose, shorn of adjectives and adverbs, seems in Coverdale's hands to be ageless, and delivers a lot with a little. In 138 pages, we move between Bremen, Rheims, Brussels and Paris, the internationalism lending glamour to the grit as Maigret sheds light on a shady group with a dark secret. As the clues pile up, so does the weight on Maigret's shoulders. The novel's clincher, and Simenon's gift, is to wring sympathy from the sinister mood, so that the big reveal isn't just about whodunnit but a heavy dilemma set up with a light touch.

Penguin Classics, Jan 2nd

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