He always thought the roof was about to cave in


The Belgian writer Georges Simenon was the creator of Jules Maigret, one of the greatest of all fictional detectives: the anti-Holmes, the stout “mender of destinies” who fuels himself with copious amounts of beer and calvados and gets to the bottom of things, not through deductive process, but by intuition and his compassionate feeling for the outer reaches of human behavior. Most literary detectives embody their creator’s fantasy; Maigret is especially unusual in that the jumping-off point seems to be Simenon asking himself not, what would I be like if I were clever or tough, but, more intriguingly, what would I be like if I were a good man? Simenon certainly didn’t see himself as a good man. He once made the outrageous claim that in his life he slept with 10,000 women (or was it 20,000?), most of them prostitutes. And he was just as prolific on the page. In fact, he’s remembered chiefly for the swiftness of his output; he reckoned he could crank out a first draft in eleven days or so, and once agreed to write a book in public, in a glass booth. Simenon was a relentless self-mythologizer, but a pitiless self-analyzer too, from which emerged the invaluable second strand of his output, the so-called romans durs, or “hard novels.” Most of these deal with more or less the same predicament: a character, usually a man, is caught in a trap of his own devising and then pushed to the limit. The best of the romans durs feel raw and electric, because Simenon, despite all his worldly experience and his enormous wealth, never stopped seeing his own life in such anxious terms. He always thought the roof was about to cave in.

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