Pietr the Latvian, by Georges Simenon

pietrInspector Maigret receives notification from the International Criminal Police Commission, an organisation that “oversees the struggle against organised crime in Europe”, that Pietr the Latvian has been sighted boarding a train heading for Paris, Maigret’s own territory.

Maigret waits at the station, equipped with a detailed description to help him recognise his target as he leaves the train. His stakeout is disrupted when a body, suffering a gunshot wound, is found on the train.
Is the victim the Latvian himself? Or could he be the victim of the man Maigret was seeking?

My introduction to Georges Simenon’s Maigret was through a recent TV programme with Rowan Atkinson playing the Paris detective, in what must be his most understated performance, showing his talent isn’t restricted to the often slapstick comedy of Mr Bean and Johnny English.

I came across this book in an almost hidden book warehouse in Canberra, where they had large numbers of more than a dozen different Maigret titles all priced quite cheaply.

I decided to buy the first two books in the Maigret series, Pietr the Latvian being the first, to see whether I liked them enough to buy more.

These books are different to the rest of my crime reading over the past year, being more of a “classic” – this one being written in 1930 originally in French, requiring a reading in translation.

I suppose one of the problems with translated works is the anglicisation of some terminology, or using an approximate British equivalent when describing something specifically French. I may be wrong to have such a response, but I found the first sentence of the book a little jarring when it referred to “Detective Chief Inspector Maigret of the Flying Squad” (my italics). It made me think of Denis Waterman and cockney accents from the old TV series The Sweeny.*

I’m not sure what I expected of my first experience with an almost 90 year old Inspector Maigret book. I’ve read “old” crime fiction (Agatha Christie) in the distant past, and knew the style would be different to the more modern stories I’ve been reading. I think the tone of the TV series also set the scene a little; very even, downplayed, almost drab – avoiding any hint of melodrama or heightened emotion. And that is how the story started, with a matter of fact depiction of Maigret following up a run of the mill case.

And then about halfway in, an event happens that releases the emotional restraints a little, as Maigret is left in no doubt of the seriousness of his investigation and the dangers it entails. I’d like to provide an example of the very vivid but controlled prose associated with that event, but wouldn’t be able to do so without resorting to “spoilers”. One thing I try to avoid when writing about a book is giving anything away that would rob other readers of  any surpises.

Overall, that section was the highlight of the book.

At times the story confused me. At other times its credibility lapsed.

Maigret not only followed the prime suspect, he continually made his own presence obvious. At one time sitting directly opposite his suspect, at the the same table, in a hotel dining room.

The story’s denouement adequately resolves a lot of the puzzles revealed earlier in the story, but I was disappointed with the path leading up to that conclusion.

At least I have Simenon’s second Maigret book, so I’ll have the chance to see if I find his story telling improved, and afterwards can decide whether I want to continue with the series beyond that second book.

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* From cockney rhyming slang, Sweeny Todd = Flying Squad.