Thursday, November 27, 2014

True Grit: Pietr the Latvian, first novel in the classic mystery series by Georges Simenon

The novel Pietr the Latvian (1929) is Georges Simenon’s introduction of Maigret, the stoical French detective and inspector leader of the Paris police “Flying Squad.” The popularity of the character spanned many decades, and the writer published seventy-five novels and twenty-eight short stories about Maigret between 1931 and 1972. In this volume, there is a Simenon quote that gives the reader an idea of how the character was first developed. Simenon was sitting in a cafĂ© one morning enjoying a glass of schnapps when he decided to write a mystery series focused on the activities of a unique character, a large powerfully built gentleman accessorized with a pipe, a bowler, a thick overcoat with a velvet collar, and a fondness for standing in front of a cast iron stove in his office. Like Simenon himself, Maigret loved smoking and drinking, the latter without overt drunkenness. Maigret was conceived to be a dogged procedural investigator with frequent actions determined by his intuitions regarding the motivations of criminals. Maigret is married, and his wife expects and endures frequent unannounced absences as the detective chases down criminals with the help of his squad.

There was a time when I read many mysteries because I thought writers in this genre focus more directly on the psychology of the characters than writers in other fiction categories. Simenon is a good example of this concentration since he deliberately selected a character dedicated to his career and to life’s small but daily personal pleasures tobacco, alcohol, physical warmth, and in particular active interaction with criminals from a position of power. The reader does not so much identify with the inspector but rather follows him around in a somewhat subservient fashion. Like the subordinates and criminals Maigret runs across in the stories, the reader does not want to get in the man’s way. In this novel and others, Maigret likes to use his large body to invade the space of others, intimidating them with his bulk and imperative language.

In Pietr the Latvian, it is apparent how Simenon hooked readers into following the somewhat overbearing detective, a hard man to like on the surface. In this case, Maigret investigates a murder on a train that occurs on a journey from northern Europe to Paris. The detective puffs on his pipe, stands in front of his cast iron stove, and follows the trail of suspects who after the murder are staying at a first class hotel in Paris. Maigret shows grit in his endurance as he travels and works for days without sleep in pursuit of evidence that will solve the perpetrator’s identity diversions. Considered a threat, the detective is targeted for elimination and suffers injury but plods on in his investigation, weakened but determined. In the course of exhausting events, Maigret takes time to enjoy his tobacco, alcohol, and comfort of heat in various locations during the cold and rainy conditions in France.

I will be following the detective in his many cases for many years to come, continuing by reading novel number 2 when the mood strikes me. If you like contemporary mysteries, the Maigret series will provide a good foundation for understanding the genre.

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