Monday, August 17, 2015

Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon

Introducing Maigret
Over the years I have read several of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels, but only in a haphazard order based upon whatever copies I’d stumble upon in used bookstores. In November 2013, Penguin Classics began publishing new editions of all the Maigret novels, beginning with this one, giving a whole new generation of readers the opportunity to read this extensive series (75 novels in all) in their original sequence.

Pietr the Latvian, originally published in 1931 under the French title of Pietr-le-Letton, is Maigret’s debut. The title character is a notorious Eastern European gangster who’s wanted all over the continent. As the book opens, Maigret is monitoring a series of telegrams tracking Pietr’s movements across Europe as he gets closer and closer to Paris. Maigret, Detective Chief Inspector of the Flying Squad, is there to meet the train when it arrives. What he finds is unexpected: a dead body matching the description of Pietr the Latvian, apparently just murdered. However, another man is seen leaving the scene whose appearance is almost identical to that of the corpse. Which, if either, of these men is Pietr the Latvian? Just who has killed whom, and why?

Compared to other Maigret cases I’ve read, this is not one of my favorites. I didn’t find the mystery too mysterious, and much of what is revealed at the end feels like a foregone conclusion. However, I did enjoy how Simenon develops the character of Maigret in this first book and how he establishes the dark and seedy, rain-soaked atmosphere that pervades so many of the Maigret novels. It’s a refreshingly unglamorized look at the criminal underbelly of France and the workaday job of a police detective. Those expecting some sort of Maigret origin story will likely be disappointed. Simenon is always stingy with details when it comes to his hero. There’s never any complete portrait of Maigret that’s clearly delineated in any one novel. Rather, choice details leak out from between the lines, and eventually over several books you start to get a sharper image of the character.

Sometimes Maigret is compared to Sherlock Holmes, but such comparisons are more of magnitude than of any similarity in style or technique. Holmes’s cases are much more about the art of detection, while Maigret’s investigative procedures often involve merely stalking his characters until they slip up. He spends much of this book waiting outside of hotels. One thing Simenon and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle do have in common, however, is their concern for the back story of the criminal. In Simenon’s book, the crime is often an afterthought; it’s the psychology of the criminal itself that matters. At the end of Pietr the Latvian, Simenon treats the exposition of criminal motive with his usual sensitivity and nuance, but I wasn’t as moved by this human drama as that of other Maigret books like Lock 14 or A Man’s Head.

If you enjoy detective fiction you should already be reading Maigret. If not, what better place to start than where it all began? Many thanks go out to Penguin Classics for investing in a revival of Simenon’s classic novels, and I for one intend to support them in their efforts by reading these great books.
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