Novellas in November: Translation Week: Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon, Translated by David Bellos

This week’s  Novellas in November is Translation Week and I’ve chosen Georges Simenon’s Pietr the Latvian, translated by David Bellos (165 pages). It is officially the first Maigret book, although it was originally published in instalments in the magazine Ric et Rac between July and October 1930.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jules Maigret is a Detective Chief Inspector of the Flying Squad in Paris and we get a really detailed description of him – he was a broad heavy man, aged forty-five:

His clothes were well cut and made of fairly light worsted. He shaved every day and looked after his hands.

But his frame was proletarian. He was a big bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves and quickly wore through new trousers.

He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there. His assertive presence had often irked many of his own colleagues.

It was something more than self-confidence but less than pride. He would turn up and stand like a rock with his feet wide apart. On that rock all would shatter, whether Maigret moved forward or stayed exactly where he was.

His pipe was nailed to his jawbone. (page 21)

He has received messages that Pietr the Latvian, an international criminal, is en route by train from the Netherlands to Paris. He has a description of Pietr and went immediately to the Gare du Nord to intercept him. But on spotting him he had to let him go because a man had been murdered on the train – and that man also matched Pietr’s description. From that point on. I became increasingly confused. Who is Pietr the Latvian? Was he the man who got off the train or the man who was murdered?

There are many characters and for quite a lot of the book I struggled to work out who was who. Maigret spends his time going from place to place and interviewing many people and I really had little idea of what was going on. The question of identity plays a major part. Pietr was thought to be the head of a major international ring mainly involved in fraud, counterfeit money and forged documents and his known associates seem to be mainly British and American. The setting in the 1930s is a mix of glamorous hotels and bars in Paris, seedy back streets, and the seaside town of Fécamp in Normandy. The book does feel dated now along with the anti-antisemitism some of the characters voiced.

If you haven’t read any of the Maigret books I suggest you start with one of the later books, which are much better. What I liked about it is that it establishes Maigret’s character and appearance right from the beginning. He feels like a real person with solidity and presence. He’s also tough, carrying on chasing around after Pietr even after he’s been shot. I think it’s an interesting story, in which a lot happens and even if I was mystified at first it did become clearer as I read on and I was pleased to find that I had worked out Pietr’s identity before it was revealed.

Pietr the Latvian is included in the Inspector Maigret Omnibus 1. The four titles are Pietr the Latvian, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, The Carter of ‘La Providence’, The Grand Banks Café.

Previously I’ve read:

and