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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Pietr the Latvian

Georges Simenon

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To purchase Pietr the Latvian

Title: Pietr the Latvian
Author: Georges Simenon
Genre: Novel
Written: 1930 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 162 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Pietr the Latvian - US
Pietr the Latvian - UK
Pietr the Latvian - Canada
Pietr-le-Letton - Canada
Pietr the Latvian - India
Pietr-le-Letton - France
Maigret und Pietr der Lette - Deutschland
Pietr il Lettone - Italia
Pietr el letón - España
  • The first Inspector Maigret novel
  • French title: Pietr-le-Letton
  • Translated by David Bellos
  • Previously translated and published as The Strange Case of Peter the Lett (1933; translated Anthony Abbot), The Case of Peter the Lett, and Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett (1963, translated by Daphne Woodward)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : rough but bustling, and good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 26/11/2013 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent . 1/11/2013 Boyd Tonkin
Literary Review . 12/2013 John Banville
New Statesman . 20/11/2013 Ian Sansom
Sunday Times . 22/12/2013 Andrew Holgate
TLS . 9/5/2014 Julian Barnes

  From the Reviews:
  • "Here we have a wonderfully seedy city, with sordid bars, hired killers who kill other hired killers, drugs (opium and heroin, mainly), and enormous amounts of rotgut alcohol. Everything occurs in a blue fug of tobacco smoke, except when the weather's too bad even for Maigret to light his pipe. (...) The curious thing about Simenon is that no one seems to mind the fact that the writing is terrible, bearing all the signs of hackery and haste. The dots ... the limited vocabulary ... the exclamation marks !" - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "David Bellos translates -- superbly, bien sur. If you don't know Maigret, you'll be hooked" - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "Pietr the Latvian is a somewhat rough diamond. Clearly it was written at speed, and while one would not go so far as to say that the result is slapdash, much of the writing is clumsy or unfocused -- a writer can be judged for laziness or shameless haste by the frequency with which he uses exclamation marks, and in this book they abound. The plot is great fun but pure hokum" - John Banville, Literary Review

  • "Though the plot lumbers and lurches, all of the essential elements are there (.....) This sort of quality and commitment is a long way from Simenonís treatment at the hands of his previous English translators" - Ian Sansom, New Statesman

  • "Of these first six books, Pietr the Latvian is the most hectic, and the most anxiously complicated, featuring a pair of identical twins who adopt triple identities." - Julian Barnes, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Inspector Maigret novels started appearing -- a whole slew of them -- in 1931; Pietr the Latvian, originally serialized in 1930, is the first of them, introducing the Detective Chief Inspector of the Flying Squad. Soon translated into English (the first translation of Pietr-le-Letton appeared in 1933), Simenon has been unevenly served by his many translators; admirably Penguin Classics have now commissioned new translations (by many of the leading translators-from-the-French) for their new edition of the complete Maigret-series -- with David Bellos doing the honors here. Bellos -- Georges Perec-biographer and translator (most notably: Life A User's Manual), as well as translator of novels such as Romain Gary's Hocus Bogus) and the occasional more traditional mystery (such as Fred Vargas' Have Mercy on Us All) -- is a good fit for this loose but very lively mystery, and he has a lot of fun with Simenon's unbridled flair here.
       The novel begins with Maigret learning that the notorious Pietr the Latvian -- "Thought to be capo of major international ring mainly involved in fraud" -- is on his way, with the surprisingly efficient and well-coördinated international authorities passing on sightings as he makes his way to Paris. Maigret even knows what train to expect him on, and in what car and compartment he's sitting. He has a good description of the man, too, but when he goes to the station it isn't quite that easy: there's a dead man in one of the train's toilets, with a gunshot wound to his chest. Murder ? suicide ? and the biggest question of all: is it Pietr the Latvian ? The dead man resembles the description Maigret was given ... but then so did a man Maigret saw leaving the station .....
       Maigret follows the trail of the other man, and finds the presumed Pietr the Latvian -- calling himself Oswald Oppenheim -- installed at the Hotel Majestic and dining with the Mortimer-Levingstons (with the Mrs. sporting: "pearls worth a cool million on her neck"). Maigret continues to tail Pietr the Latvian, relentlessly, even as the trail goes hot and cold -- and even after he gets shot. There are violent deaths -- though: "International gangsters who engage in top-flight scams rarely commit murder" --, the confusing role of the wealthy American, Mortimer-Levingston -- "in the eyes of the whole world, and honest and upright man !" -- and rather many pieces to the puzzle that don't seem to quite fit together -- until, of course, finally they do.
       The novel opens with what appears to be gobbledygook -- "ICPC tp PJ Paris Xvzust Krakow vimontra m ghks triv psot uv Pietr-le-Letton Bremen vs tyz btolem", the first of the missives Maigret gets warning him Pietr the Latvian is on his way; more follow, and he also picks up a dispatch that's entirely in a numeric code. These condensed bursts of information -- 'translated' by Maigret, for his (and the reader's) benefit -- and the heightening tension as they place Pietr the Latvian closer and closer nicely set the tone for the novel, which feels similarly compressed and abbreviated at every turn, with Maigret then fleshing out what's behind it all. It's cleverly done: Simenon may not have worked too hard on polishing the novel, but his natural instincts hit the mark far more often than not.
       Even Maigret's 'legendary imperturbability' is tested with this case, but it's a nice introduction to the inspector, all "placid mass", almost always eager to reach for his pipe, and never taking a break until everything is settled. Fast-paced, with a great deal of conversation -- and liberal use of ellipses, to rush things along even more -- Pietr the Latvian has a rough feel, but nevertheless carries readers along nicely. It's a good, fun read, nicely (if occasionally breathlessly) paced, and even if it has the tossed-off feel of a book written in a mad rush (as many of Simenon's books were ...), it still impresses with its style and flair.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 March 2014

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Pietr the Latvian: Reviews: Georges Simenon: Other books by Georges Simenon under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Georges Simenon (1903-1989) wrote hundreds of books, and is especially famous for his detective-fiction.

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