Miles Kington: In search of that dream team of crime writers

14 September 2005

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Whenever I feel a need to brush up my French, which is usually two hours before I go to France again, I dash to my shelves for a quick fix of a Maigret novel by Georges Simenon.

This year my Flybe flight was so delayed that I had already finished my chosen Maigret novel while still in British airspace, so when we landed I went to the French airport bookstall to get another one. They had quite a lot of crime novels – Agatha Christie, especially – but I could not locate any books by Simenon. I approached the young man in charge of the shop.

"I am looking for a book by Georges Simenon," I said, in the language of General de Gaulle.

"And which particular book by M. Simenon are you looking for?" he said.

"Any book by Simenon," I said. "A Maigret mystery for preference." He started scanning his stock list on his computer. "How are you spelling Simenon?" he asked.

I gaped for a moment until I realised he wasn't really asking for spelling advice; he had just never heard of Georges Simenon. A man in charge of a bookshop in France had never heard of Georges Simenon! And they hadn't got any! I was forced instead to buy a couple of copies of Fluide Glacial, the brilliantly funny graphic art magazine, or what we in this country would call a superior comic.

It turned out to be a far better choice to help brush up my French, but that does not alter the fact that a major French airport could not rustle up a single Simenon novel. Does Bristol ever run out of Agatha Christie? Is Turnhouse Airport at Edinburgh ever an Ian Rankin-free zone? I doubt it. Indeed, we still treasure Maigret over here in Britain. While I was in France I bought and read another Maigret called Le Chien Jaune ("The Yellow Dog") and when I got back to England I found that Radio 4 was doing a radio adaptation of that very book the week I returned.

Having just read the book, I thought I would enjoy wallowing in a radio version, but it didn't quite have the same impact. It was not hard to spot the reason why. When you adapt you have to reduce, and when you reduce it's always easiest to jettison the background, the atmosphere, the scenery "all the baggage that slows down the plot.

Unfortunately, it's often the atmosphere that's the best thing about the Maigret books. Long after you have finished a book like Le Chien Jaune you can remember the rainy, out-of-season Breton town, the glistening cobbles, the wind chasing scrap paper down the quayside, the boats riding uneasily even in the safety of the harbour, the steamy bar of the main hotel, where the corrupt petty VIPs of the place meet to cook up their little plots and hide their sordid secrets...

What you can't remember so well is what the actual crime was and who did it. But then, every crime writer has his forte, and with Simenon it was the ambiance. You couldn't say that of Agatha Christie. You never get the smell of a place with our Agatha, do you?

I once witnessed a TV interview with Billy Wilder, the only film director in the history of the world, as far as I know, who worked on films both with Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, and he went straight to the nub of the matter.

Raymond Chandler was a genius with dialogue and character, he said. He could create people, and he could make them talk brilliantly, and you believed them. Agatha Christie was hopeless at that. Her dialogue was nowhere and her people were nobody. On the other hand, could she tell a story! Her plots were magnificent, whereas Chandler's plotting was all over the place.

With Chandler you were never even quite sure who had actually done the deed, partly because Chandler himself was never quite sure either. (Which is maybe why Christie still sells millions and Chandler has gone into eclipse...) If only, sighed Wilder, there was a writer who could combine Christie's story-telling with Chandler's characters and dialogue. Boy, what a writer that would be.

And, I would like to add, if you added Simenon's magic feel for place and atmosphere, his stuffy bourgeois drawing-rooms, his seedy provincial hotels, his claustrophobic canal boats – what a writer you'd have then.

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