Translated by David Bellos — ‘Apparent age 32, height 169 cm…’ Thus begins the first ever Maigret novel by Simenon, published in serial form in France in 1930 and translated into English originally as Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett. Now with the title Pietr the Latvian, the first Maigret has been reprinted by Penguin Classics for modern audiences. Even though the novel is over 80 years old, we are instantly drawn into a world of international police collaboration, a Europe-wide manhunt and the thought processes of a bulky, middle-aged detective who proves to be far more charismatic than he has any right to be.
Most of the novel is dedicated to the dogged and exhausting police search for most wanted criminal Pietr the Latvian and his associates. It is set in Paris, with some forays into the French provinces. Who is this mysterious character and what is the connection between him and the wealthy Mortimer Levinstons, who are constantly dashing off in their yacht to do a deal in some world capital? Just who is the victim found gruesomely murdered in a train toilet and why does he resemble the wanted man? Is Pietr a Norwegian seaman living contentedly with his wife and young children in the small port of Fécamp? Is he a Russian drunkard with dirty underwear and a vagrant lifestyle? Or could he be the subtle East European intellectual, breathing refinement from head to toe? Maigret is puzzled but endlessly patient and focused in this game of cat and mouse. Then he loses one of his men. Wracked by guilt and emotion, he becomes even more determined to hunt down the killer.
What is most surprising about this early novel is how recognisably himself Maigret already is. This tall, heavy-set man, with shoulders so broad they cast a shadow, relies on his ‘proletarian’ frame to impose himself. His mere presence exudes an air of quiet menace. We have here all of the small details which are elaborated upon in later novels: the pipe sticking out the side of his mouth, the hat, the heavy dark overcoat, his concern to keep the stove in his office going, his frequent stops in bars along the way to have a drink and pump some information out of the locals. There is even a brief apparition of the ever-patient Madame Maigret, who jokingly complains that she has to get all her gossip about this notorious case from the concierge rather than her husband. Clearly, the character of Maigret sprung fully-formed in his creator’s mind from the start.
Yet there are differences too. Maigret is younger and far more physical in this early novel. He uses a pistol and runs after suspects, although he also relies on his mix of intuition and careful observation. The author’s style is also less laconic. There are more detailed descriptions of Maigret and his feelings, while in later books the spotlight remains firmly on the characters the detective encounters in the course of his investigations. This new translation by award-winning Princeton professor David Bellos gives a freshness and immediacy which makes the work seem surprisingly modern. With one exception – the rather negative portrayal of Jewish characters is probably symptomatic of that historical period in Europe, but is shocking to read today.
It is no secret that I am a great Simenon fan, so I am enchanted by Penguin Classics’ idea to publish all 75 Maigret novels in order, at the rate of one per month. Each will come with a moody, photographic cover and will also appear as an ebook. Some of them have either not been translated into English at all, or are no longer in print, while others are given a vivid new translation. This is a welcome and ambitious initiative to reintroduce Simenon to a new audience.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars