In Simenon’s first novel featuring Maigret, the laconic detective is taken from grimy bars to luxury hotels as he traces the true identity of Pietr the Latvian.
Title: Pietr the Latvian | Author: Georges Simenon | Series: Inspector Maigret #1 | Publisher: Penguin Classics | Pages: 176 | ISBN: 9780141392738 | Publication date: 1930 | Source: Self-purchased
‘Pietr the Latvian’ is the first of Georges Simenon’s many Inspector Maigret novels. There are some 75 of these, as well as numerous short stories, published between 1930 and 1972. Simenon was Belgian and the books were originally published in French. I read this one in the new English translation issued by Penguin who are republishing all of the novels.
This was my first experience of Maigret and I enjoyed it enormously. For a book that is only 11 years away from being a century old, ‘Pietr the Latvian’ felt fresh and extremely readable, How much of that is down to the new translation I can’t say, but the prose has a wonderful economy that makes for great reading.
The plot is great too, with the dogged but somewhat downtrodden Maigret investigating the discovery of a body on a train that has arrived in Paris. The investigation takes in wealthy Americans, a range of Parisians and the title’s mysterious Latvian, a ruthless criminal mastermind.
Whilst the mystery element is fun and well handled, it was Maigret himself that I enjoyed the most. Large, square and determined, he strides through the book like a force of nature, even when it seems like everything (including the elements) is against him. He is often depicted soaked to the skin from rainy stakeouts, huddled next to the stove in his office for warmth as he puffs on his pipe. Simenon manages to make him both sympathetic and admirable as his tenacity drives him forward through multiple setbacks.
Paris is wonderfully portrayed as well, a vibrant, bustling mishmash of different races and cultures, where the extremely rich and the dirt poor rub shoulders and the police try to maintain a semblance of order. There is a definite whiff of anti-semitism to the proceedings, with Simenon at one point showing Maigret as being offended by the smell of the apartment of a Jewish character. I reflected in my recent review of a Mike Hammer reboot that some elements of vintage crime fiction may be best left in the past, and this is definitely another example of that. It’s impossible to defend with anything other than the lame excuse that the book is “of its time”.
That blemish aside, this was a very enjoyable read. It’s well paced, humorous, gripping and benefits from both a great detective and a solid mystery.