Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

GEORGES SIMENON – Pietr the Latvian. Penguin Books, softcover, 2013. Translated from the French by David Bellos. First US edition: Covici Friede, hardcover, 1931. First UK edition: Hurst, hardcover, 1933. Also published as Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett. Penguin, US/UK, paperback, 1963. First published serially in French as Pietr-le-Letton in the weekly Ric & Rac, No. 71-83, 19 July to 11 October 1930.

SIMENON Pietr the Lett

   Class-conscious interwar Paris, along with gritty Depression-era New York City and 1940s-era noir Los Angeles, are ideal urban settings for mystery writers seeking to place their protagonist in the heart of societies experiencing disruptive cultural and social changes.

   Georges Simenon’s (1903-1989) Pietr the Latvian, originally published in 1930, is a police procedural set primarily in interwar Paris. In this short novel, Simenon introduces the character of Inspector Maigret, one of the twentieth-century’s best-known fictional policemen. After this first Maigret novel, Simenon would go on to feature the pipe-smoking detective in in 74 additional novels and 28 short stories. (There were also numerous television adaptations.)

   Is there a robust market for Maigret in the English-speaking world? Hard to say, but Penguin Books surely must have sensed a profitable business opportunity when it decided that Penguin Classics, beginning in 2013, would publish English translations of all the Inspector Maigret novels.


   The first of the Maigret novels, Pietr the Latvian, both captivates and disappoints. The plot follows the Parisian inspector’s relentless pursuit of the eponymous international criminal. When Maigret discovers a man fitting Pietr’s description dead in a train car, the mystery only deepens. There appear to be two Pietrs, one dead and one still very much alive, residing in a Parisian hotel. Maigret’s chase takes him to unique locales within both Paris and Normandy. Along the way, he encounters a wide array of unique characters, including an American millionaire and his wife, a dancer, a Jewish hotelier, and a man who appears to be Pietr.

   Simenon’s prose succeeds at temporarily transporting the reader to a wet, windswept land where things aren’t always what they seem. Two of the novel’s memorable settings are the posh Majestic, a hotel on the Champs-Élysées and the Marais, the traditional Jewish quarter. The contrast between these two worlds within the larger city of Paris, as described by Simenon, is palpable.

   A notable subtext is the author’s critical analysis of the ethnic schisms and class divisions of interwar Paris. For instance, Simenon describes Inspector Maigret as both having a proletarian frame and being out of place at an elite Parisian hotel:

   Inevitably Maigret was a hostile presence in the Majestic. He constituted a kind of foreign body that the hotel’s atmosphere could not assimilate. (p. 10)


   And when Inspector Maigret attends the opening night of a play at the Gymnase Theatre to trail a wealthy suspect, “he stuck out as the only person not wearing formal attire” (p. 56). Simenon’s descriptions, both explicit and implicit, of the mores of the trans-Atlantic upper crust also merit the reader’s attention.

   Simenon’s treatment of the ethnic divide in Paris, namely between native Frenchmen and Eastern European immigrants, is also worth analyzing. The story hinges, in part, on how one Jewish female character from the Marais interacts with persons staying at the Majestic.

   Through Simenon’s writing, one catches a glimpse of how many Western Europeans at the time viewed emigrants from Russia, Poland, and the Baltics as both foreign and mysterious. A contemporary reader may bristle upon reading Chapter 14’s opening line, one dealing with the aforementioned Jewish character’s apartment:

   Every race has its own smell, and other races hate it. (p.115)

   That said, Simenon’s treatment of Jewish and Eastern European characters is comparably innocuous when compared with much that was written in that era.


   It’s too bad, then, that this good detective story with an atmospheric setting suffers from uneven writing, at least in this translation. There are far too many instances within the text where the writing can only be best described as clunky. The translation also seems to be too literal. (I say this as someone who has translated French academic texts.)

   Take, for instance, this sentence from Chapter 12:

   He filled his pipe and suddenly realized with another smile that was somewhat more ironical than the first that for the last several hours he’d forgotten to have a smoke. (p. 103)

   Or this sentence from Chapter 10:

   He looked like a tourist in a historic church trying to work out without the help of a guide what there was to inspect. (p.85)

   Fortunately, not all of the work reads like this. It would be preferable to read sentences that not only captured Simenon’s original intent, but also flowed well in contemporary English. Simenon’s writing, or at least how it’s rendered here, is nowhere near as fluid as that of Arthur Conan Doyle or Raymond Chandler.

   With all that in mind, it’s worth mentioning that this will not be the only Inspector Maigret novel I shall read. I look forward to reading other translators’ rendering of Simenon’s work and to follow the life and times of one of the twentieth-century’s most beloved fictional detectives.