France’s True Detective: Jules Maigret

James T. Murray

Translating the complete works of Georges Simenon.

Every culture has the literary gumshoe it deserves. America has the hard-boiled Philip Marlowe, Britain has the eccentric Sherlock Holmes and France has Jules Maigret, the hawkeyed, phlegmatic Paris police chief of 75 novels and 28 short stories by Belgian writer Georges Simenon. Penguin has announced its plans to translate Simenon’s complete works, starting with eight Maigret novels to be released this year. The challenges for the project are on the scale of Simenon’s legend.

A man of prodigious appetites (he boasted of having bedded thousands of women), Simenon was as prolific as his most famous character was laconic. He wrote, as the translator of 1931’s The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, Linda Coverdale, put it, “faster than the secretary could type.” (The Hanged Man came out April 1.) It is said he rarely reread manuscripts, which means that in addition to untangling the atmospheric midcentury French argot, translators had to iron out some minor plot discrepancies. But the Maigret novels were more than pulpy police procedurals. “Simenon was one of the greats,” says Coverdale, who studied with Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, among others. “The Maigrets are psychological studies. They’re studies of France.”