The new Penguin Classics translations of Georges Simenon:
Original title Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien, 1931. For comparison, here's the first Penguin edition of 1963, cashing in on the imense popularity of the BBC television series (today's Scandinavian crime phenomenon is the latest manifestation of our national predilection for Continentals as long as they're murdering each other):
We all like a classic Penguin Crime cover, and this one has some nice touches: the black border, the casual omission of the author's first name, the hint of a tricoleur; but it's generic. The modern version is just way more cool, which is presumably the point. Having read a couple of them — this one and the first, Pietr the Latvian — I'm beginning to unbend towards Maigret: some starchy, whodunnitish plotting is made up for by the seedy, strained atmosphere, the documenting of petit-bourgeois struggle and disillusionment. Around the same time, the early Thirties, American authors like James M. Cain were fusing the same elements into noir; but Simenon, to his credit, refuses the implied glamorization and stays gris.
Perhaps it's the new translations that have changed my mind (Pietr the Latvian was done by David Bellos, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien by Linda Coverdale): they have a terse, demotic flow that owes a lot to the American hardboiled tradition; though to be fair to the old translations, they occasionally hit the same sweet spot. But I suspect I'm just a sucker for smart packaging, trash dressed up as literature. The fly-leaves bear admiring quotations from heavyweights: Faulkner, Gide, Muriel Spark, A.N. Wilson (yeah yeah, middleweights as well). Simenon's original titles have been restored — Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett was not an improvement on Pietr the Latvian — and while I can take or leave the typography, the moody cover photos are smartly picked. An odd thing about the one for The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, though: the story concerns a group of men tugged back to the scene of an ancient crime, in Liège in Belgium, Simenon's home town. Harry Gruyaert, who took the photo, is another Belgian, and he's produced a collection, Roots, precisely about going home to small-town Belgium; perversely, the photo Penguin used here was taken in small-town Morocco, in Ouarzazate. Still, the rusty colours and broken concrete, the shadows and solitude suit the atmosphere of mystery and poverty.
My solution to the problem of Maigret, by the way: stop reading 20 pages before the end — better yet, tear those pages out before you start. That way you're guaranteed the desirable enigma and stress without the distracting final neatness.
Here's a small treat: the only video I can find of the Rupert Davies Maigret.
(Granada did two series with Michael Gambon 20 years ago — those are available.)