Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon, translated by David Bellos

Pietr the Latvian
Georges Simenon
Originally Published 1931
Maigret #1
Followed by The Late Monsieur Gallet

Maigret receives word that a well-known conman, Pietr the Latvian, has been spotted on a train headed for the Gare du Nord. When the train arrives Maigret boards to discover a body looking like Pietr lying shot dead in the toilet. Shortly afterwards however he is astonished to see someone resembling Pietr, a man he believes is dead, entering the Hotel Majestic.

Pietr the Latvian was the first Maigret story to appear in print and is also my first brush with the character. While I am not planning some grand undertaking like my Ellery Queen and non-series Christie reads, I wanted to give this a try to broaden my knowledge of the development of the crime genre.

My initial impressions listening to the wonderful audiobook reading by Gareth Armstrong were that the book reminded me of my experiences reading Ian Fleming. I am curious as to whether the novel reads that way in the original French and will be curious to see if the comparison occurs to me with other volumes as Penguin used a number of different translators for their reissues.

Simenon writes with a direct efficiency and sardonic tone that simultaneously suggests a certain world-weariness and a sense of drive and energy that will keep the main character going. Like Fleming’s Bond, Maigret experiences some considerable physical and a little emotional trauma at points in this story, not to mention a lack of rest, and yet his dedication to tracking down Pietr and figuring out how everything connects keeps him going.

Also like Bond, Maigret’s story is a mix of chase and investigation following a clear lead he already has at the start of the novel. We begin reading the description of Pietr as Maigret works to commit the details to his memory and through the novel we do not see him working to do much thinking about the case. He follows leads, sets up observations and speaks with witnesses but he primarily follows his gut as he works through the case.

I have to say that I found Maigret to be quite intriguing. The character is nowhere near as colorful as many of his Golden Age counterparts, although he does have some defining character traits such as his desire to warm himself by the stove in his office and the pipe he smokes, and we do not get much of a sense of him beyond the job he does. I did enjoy the contrast Simenon draws between the unpretentious detective and the glamorous surroundings of the fine hotel and I thought that a key sequence in which Maigret recommits himself to his mission was very effective in giving a sense of his core character.

Having focused my comments so far on the author’s style and the characterization of Maigret I suppose I must turn to the details of the case although I possess few strong opinions on that score.

It certainly boasts an intriguing hook in its opening scenes as Maigret comes to encounter the body and discover the doppelganger but little of what followed appealed to the imagination or forced much thought. I enjoyed the process of following how Maigret worked through his leads but there were few moments of shock or surprise in the explanation of what was going on. The book never outstayed its welcome though and the plot was paced well enough that I did not struggle to stay engaged.

Overall, I found Pietr the Latvian to be a brief but punchy read. I was surprised by the style and tone of the novel, coming to it expecting more of a mystery novel, but that is more of an issue with my expectations than the material. I will be curious to visit some later Maigret stories and see how the character developed over in later years.