This novel marked the official literary debut of Detective Chief Inspector Jules Amédée François Maigret of the Paris Police Judiciaire when it first appeared in serial form in the summer and autumn of 1930. It was however the fifth in order of book publication when the series started to appear at the extraordinary rate of one a month the following year. But that is just one of the many headaches that befall anyone trying to keep chronological sense of the series of 75 novels, especially in translation.
Inside every wrong-doer and crook there lives a human being.
The Maigret novels are all fairly compact (the new Penguin edition runs to just 160 pages) but they are packed with incident, atmosphere and memorable characters. Inspector Maigret is on the hunt for a criminal mastermind, the eponymous Pietr. When his train arrives in Paris he heads off to the Majestic, a five-star hotel, where he dines with Mortimer-Levingston, the American millionaire businessman. But things are already going wrong as the police find a dead body inside one of the train’s toilet cubicles. The dead man looks a lot like the Latvian, so Maigret decides to find out who he was while also keeping an unsubtle presence at the hotel to put pressure on Pietr and the American. The two men then vanish from the hotel, shortly after which one of Maigret’s colleagues is murdered at the Majestic; and then Maigret himself is shot at in the street. How is this connected to the Norwegian Captain Haas, who lives in a small Normandy village with his family, and who may have been the person found dead in the train? And what about Fyodor, the dissolute drunk who also resembles Pietr physically but who lives in a Parisian garret with the passionate Anna? There will be several more deaths before the surprising explanation is found.
Originally published in France as ‘Pietr-le-Lettoné’ in May 1931, it first appeared in English as ‘The Strange Case of Peter the Lett’ in 1933 with a translation by the noted mystery writer Fulton Oursler under his pen name ‘Anthony Abbot’; thirty years later it was published again in English as ‘Maigret and the enigmatic Lett’ in a new translation by Daphne Woodward.
Inevitably Maigret was a hostile presence in the Majestic. He constituted a kind of foreign body that the hotel’s atmosphere couldn’t assimilate.
The newest version, and the one being reviewed here, as Pietr the Latvian, first appeared from Penguin in 2013 and has been translated by the renowned scholar David Bellos, Meredith Howland Pyne Professor of French Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. This new edition from Penguin Classics was launched with some fanfare back in November 2013 with a view to creating, at last, a uniform, accurate and comprehensive English-language edition of all the Maigret stories, to be published at the rate of one per month. For more information about the range, visit: www.penguin.co.uk/series/INSMAI/inspector-maigret/ So, in the intervening four years, Penguin have kept up their schedule and have put out 46 titles (as of August 2017). As far as I can judge the translations have been a great success, making up for the many inconsistencies and changes introduced in the early versions prepared by Geoffrey Sainsbury. The covers (see the one at the top of this review) are no great shakes I’m sorry to say but my only real criticism is the lack of any additional material – at the very least it could have included a complete listing of all the books! And new introductions would have been nice and even archival pieces could have been provided (as with the Nero Wolfe reprints from Bantam). But anyway, ultimately it is the work itself that counts …
My blogging compadre Jose Ignacio has been steadily reviewing the new Penguin Classics translations of the Maigret books over at his fine blog, A Crime is Afoot. His review of Pietr can be found here. Ian Samsom wrote a good profile of Maigret for the New Statesman. Nicholas Lezard wrote a very sensible review of this edition of Pietr the Latvian for The Guardian, rightly pointing to several stylistic infelicities and the fact that parts of the book do often feel rushed. Though there is no denying that this book, originally written for serial publication, came on the heels of several years of prodigious hack work, there is certainly a greatness here, a depth of feeling that always resonates with Simenon. As this is the first in the series, we find out quite a lot about Maigret in this book and the story is made very personal when his closest colleague, Inspector Torrence is killed (Lucas is only mentioned in passing; there is no Janvier yet). Simenon would later reverse himself by having the character re-appear however. But this is absolutely the right place to start.
Things were moving fast! But Maigret remained placid and glum.
The novel has been adapted for the small screen at least three times. The first is from 1963 as ‘Peter The Lett’ for the much-admired BBC TV series starring Rupert Davies (1960-63) but has only been released in a dubbed version in Germany thus far. Dutch television adapted it as ‘Maigret en Pieter de Let ‘ in 1967 with Jan Teulings starring in their Maigret series that ran from 1964 to 1969, though Kees Brusse played the main role for the first season. But I’ve not seen either of these adaptations. The one I have seen, and I think the most recent attempt, is the adaptation from 1972, made as part of the long-running series Les enquêtes du commissaire Maigret (1967-1990) starring Jean Richard. At the moment you can see a version dubbed into Italian on YouTube (see here).
It is pretty faithful in most important ways, though Simenon apparently hated Richard in the role and I can see why in some respects. He is a bit too old-looking (in the book he is supposed to be 45, the actor was in his 50s and frankly looks older) and lacks the massive physical presence that the role describes (I feel the same about Rowan Atkinson in the role). He is also rather inexpressive – admittedly Maigret is not meant to give much away, but you need a charismatic actor who can convey intelligence and instinct without words – Michael Gambon, Gino Cervi and the mighty Jean Gabin did this splendidly on the screen, but Richard, despite playing the role by far for the longest, just isn’t in the same league.
The production itself is rather pedestrian – despite being shot on film (16mm) and on location, the approach is remarkably static and flat, with only a few scenes (like those with Anna) displaying any sort of life and atmosphere. There aren’t even that many close-ups in fact so it really is quite hard to get involved in the story. The climax of the book, set in a storm on the Normandy coast, is predictably excised (clearly it would have been too hard to do on a TV budget), as is Maigret’s role in the final death, which is a real shame but typical of this rather bland product.
Les enquêtes du commissaire Maigret / Pietr le Letton (1972)
Director: Jean-Louis Muller
Producer: Claude Barma
Screenplay: Claude Barma, Jacques Rémy
Cinematography: André Diot
Art Direction: Alain Nègre
Music: [stock; uncredited]
Cast: Jean Richard, Maurice Gautier (Torrence), Dimitri Rafalsky (Pietr), Danièle Ajoret (Mrs Swann), Marta Alexendrova (Anna), Tom Clark (Mr Mortimer), Ellen Bahl (Mrs Mortimer)
Anyone interested in finding out more about Simenon and his novels should seriously consider checking out Steve Trussel’s massive Maigret web resource at: www.trussel.com/f_maig.htm
I offer the following review as part of Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘body of water’ category: