In 1931, a Belgian pulp-fiction writer living in Paris and churning out four titles a month using various noms de plume decided to publish a series of detective stories under his own name. His publisher had to ask him what his real name was;everyone in Paris knew him as ‘Sim’. Georges Simenon, as he identified himself, proved to have a flair for publicity: he had already made a small fortune from his pulp fiction and he could afford to launch the new series with an all-night party in a club in Montparnasse. The vulgarity of this gesture was mocked in Le Canard enchainé but the party — attended by gossip columnists, senior police officers, professional strippers, hundreds of gatecrashers and le tout Paris — was a riot and the detective stories, about a fictional police inspector named Jules Maigret, were an immediate success.
Three years later, having published 19 Maigret titles, Simenon put the fictional inspector into extended retirement and announced that he would embark on a third career, as a writer of romans durs, or ‘psychological’ novels. He declared that in developing the skills he had learned while creating Maigret he would win the Nobel Prize. Over the next nine years he published 45 romans durs as well as the book that now appears in English for the first time as Three Crimes, written in Paris in January 1937 and originally entitled Les trois crimes de mes amis. Three Crimes has always been described as a novel but it is in fact a ‘memoir’, a fragment of autobiography in which the author has not bothered to invent any new characters, or even change their names.
Simenon was unusual among crime writers in that he knew the criminal world from the inside. As he once said, ‘I was born in the dark and in the rain, and I got away. The crimes I write about are the crimes I would have committed if I had not got away…’ He was thinking of his childhood in Liège during and after the Great War when he saw how defeat, occupation, fear and hardship had corrupted normal standards. When the war ended Simenon was briefly drawn into that demi-monde and ten years later, shortly after launching his Maigrets, it came back to haunt him. He learnt that two men he had known in Liège were to be tried for murder.
The title of Three Crimes, as the translator David Carter points out in his introduction, is misleading. There were in fact five crimes, including four murders; of the murders, one was committed by a friend, the others were the work of a man Simenon knew well but never liked. But the first suspicious death described in Three Crimes did not involve either of these two men, it involved Simenon himself. In 1922, Joseph Kleine, a failed art student and a drug addict, was living in extreme poverty in the student quarter of Liège. Early one winter morning his body was found attached by the neck to the handle of a church door. He had spent the previous evening drinking with Simenon. At that time, Simenon, aged 19, was employed on the Gazette de Liège as a junior reporter. His duties included the daily round of police stations writing up crime reports and he wrote an unsigned report on the death of Kleine. The eventual verdict was suicide, although it seems more likely that Kleine had been murdered by his drug dealer; in any event the police did not waste much time inquiring.
The second killing described in Three Crimes was the work of Frédéric Deblauwe, one of those who had failed to ‘get away’ from Simenon’s sordid post-war world. Deblauwe, once a talented journalist and magazine editor, had been a colleague of Simenon’s on the police beat in Liège, but he had gone downhill, turning to blackmail and then to pimping. In July 1931, having moved to Paris, he murdered a rival pimp in a small hotel in the red-light district near the Gare du Nord. Simenon, who had not seen him for many years, was at that time staying in a similar hotel in a different part of Paris, writing his ninth Maigret, La Tête d’un homme. Deblauwe’s crime was reported in the newspapers and Simenon read the report.
The detective assigned to the Deblauwe case was Inspector Guillaume. He had been invited to the Maigret ball in Montparnasse and he remained a friend and technical adviser to Simenon. Inspector Guillaume travelled to Liège to search the fugitive’s house, a house that Simenon knew well, but he eventually arrested Deblauwe in France in August 1932. Deblauwe, displaying ingenuity worthy of a Simenon plot, had been hiding in a French prison, after getting himself arrested under a false name on some minor charge. In October 1933, Deblauwe was tried and convicted in Paris for murder. He had planned the crime in cold blood, he and his victim were competing for the same prostitute, but the girl in question appeared as a witness on Deblauwe’s behalf and his defence of crime passionnel was successful, so he received a life sentence rather than the guillotine. Simenon thought of going to his trial and sitting in the press box, where he would have watched the man who had sat by his side in so many press boxes at other men’s trials ten years earlier, but then he thought it might disconcert Deblauwe who was ‘fighting for his life’.
While Deblauwe was awaiting trial, another of Simenon’s Liège circle, Hyacinthe Danse, an older man he described as ‘un vicieux’ (a pervert — he was in fact a paedophile, a blackmailer and pimp), butchered his mistress and his mother with a hammer in a village outside Paris and then fled to Belgium to escape French justice. Belgium had no death penalty so, in order to save himself from extradition, Danse carried out a third murder in Liège and gave himself up to the police. By committing the third murder in Belgium he ensured that, as a Belgian citizen, he would be tried for all three killings in Belgium, so saving himself from the French guillotine.
Danse selected his third victim with some care. He called on one of his old schoolteachers, a Jesuit priest who had also taught Simenon. Danse accepted a glass of beer, made his confession to the priest and then shot him three times, after which he took a taxi to the criminal court. Danse’s tactics worked. He was tried in Liège in December 1934 and was defended by another of Simenon’s friends, a prominent Paris barrister, Maître Maurice Garçon. He received a life sentence for his three murders. Danse had no money and Maître Garçon did not come cheap, particularly if he had to travel to Belgium.
Three Crimes is a flawed book, written in a jerky, awkward manner and studded with vacuous rhetorical questions, quite untypical of the author’s usual style. The cumbersome prose may be explained by the fact that Simenon was unused to writing autobiography, or by the fact that he was still trying to make sense of the news that two of his youthful friends had been convicted of murder. But when the book is placed in the chronology of Simenon’s professional life it raises intriguing questions. Why did the ambitious author publish this confessional account, drawing attention to his friendship with two men convicted of murder, when he was battling to establish a reputation as a Nobel Prize-winner? Where did he ‘find’ Inspector Maigret? And why, having brought him triumphantly to life, did he abruptly abandon the Maigret series for eight years? Is there a direct link between the brutal and sordid crimes that Simenon thought so significant, and his own writing?
The second Maigret title, published in 1931, Le Pendu de St Pholien (Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets), is about the death of Kleine. In other words, no sooner had Inspector Maigret been created than Simenon despatched him to Belgium to investigate the mysterious death of a young art student, a death that had actually taken place nine years earlier. Three month
s after that book was published one of the author’s real-life ghosts came to life and killed. Deblauwe murdered his rival, and Simenon’s friend Guillaume, like Maigret in Le Pendu de St Pholien, travelled to Liège to the district of Simenon’s childhood, in search of the killer. Life, having inspired art, had started to repeat it.
In the autumn of 1932, with Deblauwe safely under lock and key awaiting trial, Simenon wrote L’Ane rouge, a novel describing his own youthful days in Liège as a reporter and some of the adventures he had shared with Deblauwe. And just after that novel was published another phantom, in the shape of the grotesque vicieux Hyacinthe Danse, sprang out of the woodwork and killed three people, one of them known to Simenon. At his trial Danse was defended, by chance or otherwise, by yet another of the author’s friends. By the time Danse received hard labour for life Simenon had given up writing Maigrets. Two years later, in January 1937, he wrote Three Crimes, the story of Kleine, Deblauwe and Danse. By then he was a wealthy man with a serious reputation and he was well into the period of prescription, when any police inquiries into the unintentional role he himself may have played in the death of Kleine would have been barred under Belgian law by the passage of time.
The death of Kleine seriously disturbed Simenon. It left him with a feeling of responsibility that lasted for many years and in Three Crimes he wrote, ‘In the last resort wasn’t it us who killed him?’ Simenon revealed that on the night before Kleine’s death the pair of them had spent the evening together, drinking, and that Simenon had carried his friend home because Kleine was too drunk to walk. But although he was, by his own later admission, the last person known to have seen Kleine alive he never seems to have mentioned this to the police. And he never commented on the fact that, as the Gazette’s anonymous reporter, he had listed the death as suicide even before police inquiries were complete. If the real-life Kleine died not from murder or suicide, but as the result of an accident following a practical joke, the first suspect would surely not have been either the drug dealer or one of Simenon’s friends, but the 19-year-old police reporter in person?
In Le Pendu de St Pholien, written before Deblauwe’s crime, when Maigret investigates the events surrounding the death of the fictional Kleine (known as ‘Klein’) he identifies the criminals but — although there is a month left before prescription comes into force — takes no action, choosing instead to leave them in peace to get on with their family lives in Liège. But in La Tête d’un homme, finished after Deblauwe’s crime, fictional life has become tougher. This is one of the few Maigrets in which the murderer is executed. Maigret has to accompany him to the scaffold.
Simenon’s achievement in creating a ‘Hound of Heaven’ detective, tirelessly tracking the author through his own imaginary world, may have been sparked by guilt over the death of Kleine. If there is a connection, it is buried too deep for the reader to see. But Three Crimes does shed some light on the sources of Simenon’s creation and helps to explain his lifelong sympathy for criminals, their victims and the excluded, the people he had grown up with and whom he always called ‘les petites gens’.
The creator of Maigret never won the Nobel Prize, somewhat to his own surprise, but his work drew high praise from T. S. Eliot, André Gide, Robert Brasillach, Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham, Henry Miller and Patricia Highsmith, among many others. And his literary reputation did not prevent him from going on to sell 300 million copies of his 193 titles before his death in Lausanne in 1989, a world away from the values and hardships of Liège after the Great War.
Patrick Marnham’s biography of Georges Simenon, The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret, is published by Bloomsbury.