The Maigret stories, like nearly all Simenon’s novels, are driven by violence, and by human behaviour that ranges from the twisted to the depraved. Yet there is something about their execution that seems to herald just as much the cosy crime subgenre as the America hardboiled ’tec novel, which took the solitary, shop-soiled detective and pushed him into a fully realized and extrapolated social world that was far more effectively vicious and corrupt than anything Maigret ever had to deal with.
Together the Maigrets add up to a huge, utterly coherent inventory of lust, fear, greed, ambition, jealousy and long-hidden pain, brought to light by an implacably curious mind. Simenon’s slimmed-down vocabulary (2,000 words or so) adds to their taut intensity. He called them “semi-literary” works and wished to be judged for his darkly brilliant romans durs (“tough novels”). Yet André Gide — one of Simenon’s countless literary devotees — meant Maigret too when he lauded the Belgian as “the greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had”. Penguin’s complete shelf of gem-hard soul-probes should allow a new generation to understand why.