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.