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Georges Simenon’s The Yellow Dog

Georges Simenon is one of the most well-known European mystery novelists outside his native country. His 80 Inspector Maigret novels and 28 short stories have been translated into more than 50 languages and made into numerous films. “By the time of his death in 1989,” observes Forshaw (2008), “Simenon was the most successful writer of crime fiction in a language other than English in the entire field, and his French copper Maigret had become an institution.” In 1965, the Mystery Writers of America awarded Simenon the prestigious Grand Master award for lifetime achievement.

The Times, who ranks Simenon as number two on their list of The 50 Greatest Crime Writers, identifies him as the “Trojan horse of foreign crime-writing.” Simenon also makes the list of The Telegraph’s50 Crime Writers to Read Before You Die.” As The Telegraph points out, “A whole school of modern detectives still walks in Maigret’s large footprints.”

Simenon’s first job as a journalist for the Belgium paper, Gazette de Liège, not only gained him a reputation for national and international reporting but also taught him a paired-down style of writing (Grella 1998, 830; Shorley 2009, 40). Before he began the Maigret series, Simenon wrote 120 pseudonymous pulp novels, another experience that provided the perfect apprenticeship for his later writing. Raised in Belgian, he lived in Paris from 1933 to 39 and in the U.S. from 1946 to 55. A constant world traveller, he put his wide-ranging experience to effective use in his fiction.

Like Arthur Conan Doyle, Simenon found the success of his detective series a millstone around his neck. Both men tried unsuccessfully to retire their heroes in order to write more “serious” novels. The first 19 Maigrets are succeeded by a number of impressive standalone crime novels with an intense psychological focus. Simenon subsequently returned to his popular detective and wrote another 50 Maigrets.

The Yellow Dog, one of the earliest novels to feature Inspector Jules Maigret, is set in the Breton port of Concarneau. When a wine merchant is shot after leaving a hotel, the mayor asks Maigret to solve the case. Panic erupts in the town when a group of prominent citizens are almost poisoned, a retired journalist goes missing, and another death occurs.

Published in 1931, The Yellow Dog differs from the typical Golden Age detective novel (a period of writing that typically focused on the investigation at the expense of character and atmosphere). Simenon, an astute observer of human nature, focuses on psychologically convincing characters. His books are also distinguished by his use of place.

The setting and atmosphere in these novels is concisely conveyed through a few telling details. Note, for example, the opening scene of The Yellow Dog:
The tide is in, and a southwesterly gale is slamming the boats together in the harbour. The wind surges through the streets. Here and there a scrap of paper scuttles swiftly along the ground. (1) This is a world where characters are buffeted by forces beyond their control. (Symons 1992, 157).
In the realm of detectives, Maigret stands out as a distinctive character. The inspector – as The Telegraph observes – is an unassuming detective with a brain like a sponge and the quiet moral determination of a true hero. Other detectives deduce; Maigret absorbs.

The best of the novels drop Simenon’s detective into a social environment in which, by doing very little, he unravels a whole world of secrets and interconnections.

In a typical Maigret investigation, “his actions will often seem inconsequential, even incomprehensible, before a conclusion – conventional or not – is reached (Shorley 2009, 44).

If you are looking for a mystery novel that has an intricate plot, a likeable detective, psychologically convincing characters, atmospheric surroundings, and Hemingway-like prose, you will enjoy The Yellow Dog.

Forshaw, Barry. “Georges Simenon; The 50 Greatest Crime Writers.” The Times. April 19, 2008.

Grella, George. “Georges Simenon, 1903-1989.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 2: 829-51, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.

Shorley, Christopher. “Georges Simenon and Crime Fiction between the Wars.” French Crime Fiction, edited by Claire Gorrara, 36-53. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009.

Simenon, Georges. The Yellow Dog. Translated by Linda Asher. 1931. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.