Patrick Marnham   The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 346 pages, $25

By any standard, the Belgian Georges Simenon is the most successful novelist in history—author of nearly four hundred titles which have sold five hundred million copies in fifty-five languages worldwide. Yet probably few Americans under forty have ever heard of him. In the days when French was studied by more American high-school and college students than it is today, Simenon’s novels—which never employed a vocabulary larger than two thousand words~dash\were a wonderful discovery for the student, blessed relief from exercises about la plume de ma tante.

But they were not just easy to read; they were fun, and they cast light on certain details of French life that language textbooks preferred to avoid. As Marnham points out, the appeal of Simenon’s...

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