The very first Inspector Maigret novel: Pietr the Latvian

A little while ago, I reported that Penguin were publishing all 75 of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels – in their original order and with new translations – at the rate of one a month, starting in November with Pietr the Latvian. Their press release states that this is ‘part of Penguin Classics long-term project to bring Simenon’s writing to a British audience’ – a laudable aim given his output of over 400 novels and short stories, and his status as a literary giant in Europe.

Penguin kindly sent me a copy of Pietr the Latvian, beautifully translated by David Bellos, which I very much enjoyed reading over a rainy weekend. Originally published in 1930, the novel felt a little old-fashioned in some respects, but remarkably modern in another:

  • There were moments when I had to take a deep breath due to the novel’s negative depiction of Jewish characters and its essentialist approach to issues such as race. Anti-Semitism and biological determinism were common in the 1930s, and might not have stood out for readers of the time, but of course they do now. And the fact that the book was published in the same decade that National Socialism took hold in Germany is a sobering one. I did find that there was somewhat more nuance towards the end of the novel, so I’ll be interested to see how these elements are handled later in the series…
  • But one very pleasant surprise was the highly European feel of the novel. Right at the beginning, Pietr the Latvian is identified as a major criminal being tracked by the ICPC or International Criminal Police Commission, based in Vienna, which ‘oversees the struggle against organised crime in Europe, with a particular responsibility for liaison between the various national police forces on the Continent’ (p.1). Sounds a lot like more modern organisations such as Interpol or Europol, doesn’t it? And in the course of the first four pages, Maigret is shown reading telegrams from Krakow, Bremen, the Netherlands, Brussels and Copenhagen, moving effortlessly between languages as he checks the progress of Pietr across Europe to his own juristiction of Paris.

Up until now, I’ve associated this kind of ‘Eurocrime’ feel with novels written after the collapse of communism in 1989, such as Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga and Arne Dahl’s more recent Opcop/Europol series, which thematise the rise of organised crime across European borders, and the need for coordinated pan-European policing. But now I can see that these constitute just one phase of the ‘European crime novel’, and a late-ish one at that. Simenon’s Maigret debut was already on the case in 1930, and that means others from that time and beyond are likely to address similar themes. I’m already looking forward to finding them for the Euro strand of my research: as always, suggestions gratefully received!

The second Maigret novel, The Late Monsieur Gallet, will be out in December. I can already feel a little prickle of addiction, which is no doubt exactly what the good people at Penguin intend… The book covers, by the way, are by Harry Gruyeart, a Magnum photographer. This is undoubtedly going to be a gorgeous-looking series.

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33 Responses to The very first Inspector Maigret novel: Pietr the Latvian

  1. Lizzy Siddal says:

    Mrs Peabody – My bank account and I really didn’t need to know this. I love Simenon!

  2. Alex says:

    I’m another one whose bank manager is going to take exception to the arrival of this series. I’ve been looking forward to being able to catch up with Maigret because our library system has weeded them all out and got rid of them, perhaps because of the very traits you mention in your first point.

  3. Superb translation, but (however authentic), Simenon’s generous use of exclamation marks perhaps needed filleting. But a great start to a welcome reissue programme.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Overuse of of exclamation marks is something I share with a great writer then at least *holds self down and resists urge to add exclamation mark*.

  4. MarinaSofia says:

    I’ve just received the first in the series and look forward to reading it over the next few days. I already have a complete edition of the non-Maigret novels in French and am wondering how I can justify it to myself (and my long-suffering husband) to invest in the whole Maigret series in translation.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Well, MarinaSofia – perhaps you could explore the various translation strategies used in the new series, by comparing them against the originals? That would be a scholarly, worthwhile project and would therefore justify the purchase of the entire set :)

  5. Roy Smith says:

    Over the last couple of years I have been buying up as many Maigrets as I could find, second hand. I recently said to my bookseller that if she ever got a copy of “Peter the Lett”, to save it for me only to be told that the current going price was $500 and that there were almost no copies in existence, so thank heaven for Penguin

    • Mrs P. says:

      Goodness, Roy! Yes, £6.99 sounds a lot more reasonable.

      I hadn’t realised how rare the early Simenon had become, and that casts the reissue in a whole new light for me – in terms of the impact the publisher will be having in making them readily accessible again to a wider public. Well done Penguin.

  6. I am really tempted – I have almost a complete set in Italian (my logic being that as they are linguistically so much closer it makes sense to read them as my schoolboy French is not adequate enough to read them in the original) – but I am sorely tempted by these reprints – hope the prices come down a bit. Saddening to see the charges of antisemitism stand up in these early books (it;s been too long since I read this one so can’t comment) – thanks for the very welcome review Mrs P.

    • Mrs P. says:

      How many shelves do they take up, Cavershamragu?

      Hopefully local libraries will do us a favour and start ordering the reissued novels in. Time to lobby… That might make the process a little easier on the wallet.

      I’ll be interested to see how the series progresses in terms of the its depictions of Jewish characters. I’m not surprised in a way – this sort of thing is visible in lots of crime novels from the period. I was reading a Josephine Tey novel not long ago that was just terrible in terms of its class snobbery and casual racism.

      • I only have the Maigret books and not quite all of them! There is a big gap during the war when he wrote very few while at this stage they were literally coming out at a rate of one a month! Never actually read one I didn’t think was a good short novel, not one. My superficial recollection is that such references do fade away as the 30s progress and hope that my memory is good on this.

      • Mrs P. says:

        I think I’m going to try to read them in sequence to see how they develop – in terms of the writing and quality as well as the attitudes within them. It’ll be a nice long term project that will keep me off the streets!

      • Nice one Mrs P – they should use that as a strapline on the covers!

  7. Mrs. P – It is so good to hear that these novels are all coming back. And thanks for your thoughtful review of this one. You’ve put your finger on one of the more difficult issues when it comes to any fiction: how does one handle the ‘isms’? It’s sad to accept that they’re there in our society (and certainly were at the time of this novel). But at the same time, I don’t know if I’d want those original stories ‘sanitised.’ I’ll be looking forward to your reviews as you go through the series.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Thanks for your comment, Margot. I know that the issue of dealing with ‘isms’ is one that you have often raised on your blog as well. I agree with you that ‘santising’ the stories probably isn’t the best option, not least because such texts can function as a means of understanding the dominant attitudes of a particular historical moment. I guess they also illustrate that we’ve come a long way, which is heartening.

      I’m looking forward to reading the next installments in the series, and will be watching out with interest to see how they develop in this particular respect.

  8. American criminals eventually showed up in Georges Simenon’s Maigrets as well. “Maigret, Lognon et les gangsters” appeared in 1952 with the English translations following in 1954 (“Inspector Maigret and the Killers”) and 1974 (“Maigret and the Gangsters”).

    In reading most, but not all, of the Maigret series while “fact-finding” for my pastiche, “Le Docteur Maigret” (translated into English as “Doctor Maigret”), I found his first novel, this “Pietr the Latvian”, to be one of the best. Raymond Chandler, in comparison, matured through his short stories into his novels.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Thanks for your comment, David. I look forward to meeting the Americans in due course! And thanks too for flagging up your pastiche – writing it must have been a very interesting creative process…

  9. kathy d. says:

    I guess the anti-Semitism and racism were products of the time, prior to WWII as well.
    I have to add Agatha Christie to the commentary here. I stopped reading her books while a teenager when I found the anti-Semitism and intolerance to immigrants and people of color. The descriptions of Jewish characters was a bit much. It was beyond my tolerance point.
    I’ve read a few Maigrets and didn’t see these traits, but I’ll keep my eye out.

    • Mrs P. says:

      I think you’re right, kathy d. It’s such a shame when authors that we might like a great deal let us down in this respect. I was saying in another response that I’d had a similar experience with one of Josephine Tey’s novels recently. I will probably go back to the others at some point, but in a slightly wary fashion – and after a longish gap.

  10. Given the discussion about social commentary inherent in the Maigret series, one might enjoy “Maigret, Simenon and France: Social Dimensions of the Novels and Stories” because it focuses on whether Simenon (consciously or not) presents an accurate portrait of French society. With one foot in France and the other in England, Bill Alder has put together a well-researched, well-documented, and well-written work.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Thanks for this recommendation, David. So this is a recently published (2012) study of Simenon’s works, which would be great to read in tandem with the series.

  11. Chrissie says:

    Reading them as they come out is a great idea. I have read, even re-read a lot of them, but I’d love to fill in the gaps. I’ll try to think of it as an investment! I don’t remember much anti-semitism in the post-war ones.

  12. Nan says:

    Thanks for writing about the book, and the new series. I checked amazon and this one comes out in January. I’ve read so little Simenon, and this sounds like a wonderful way to do so.

    • Mrs P. says:

      I’m in the same boat as you, Nan – I’ve not read much Simenon at all. I’m really pleased about the opportunity to catch up now as well.

  13. TracyK says:

    I enjoyed this review and look forward to more. Glad to hear these first ones are books that are otherwise hard to acquire. I have read a good bit of Maigret years ago, but only have a few in house.

    • Mrs P. says:

      Thanks, TracyK. The second one is on the way to me now, courtesy of Penguin, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it and comparing it with the first.

  14. Pingback: Classic crime in the blogosphere: November 2013 | Past Offences

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