In Georges Simenon’s first Maigret novel, Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett, we are introduced to the dogged investigator tracks Pietr the Lett (or Latvian in other editions) around
and other locales in France.
Pietr is a globe hopping criminal who thus far has managed to elude the agents
of Interpol and local police. Unfortunately for Pietr, he has wound up in the jurisdiction
of the tenacious Maigret, who will undoubtedly bring his criminal career to an
But who is Peitr the Latvian, really? Is he Oswald Oppenheim, a debonair gentleman who hob knobs with the world’s elite? Is he Olaf Swann, a Norwegian merchant officer living in Fecamp with a wife and family who spends most of his time away from home? Perhaps he is Fedor Yurovich a Russian alcoholic living in a seedy motel with a slovenly young woman so devoted that she would kill to protect him? Is he all three? Or is he someone else entirely? The answer is, of course, complex, this is a detective novel, after all, but ultimately not much of a surprise and in some ways, rather obvious.
The novel opens with intrigue, a man matching the bare description Maigret has of Pietr is found murdered in a train car w.c.; as another man, also fitting the description walks away from the station. The plot goes on a bit of a slow burn from there until the end as Maigret spends a few sleepless days uncovering the true identity of Pietr and how the various players in the mystery are connected to each other. In the process, Maigret loses his right hand man, and literal mini-me, who is killed by an assassin, and is himself shot in the chest and may possibly lose three of his ribs. Yet none of this stops the indomitable inspector from hunting down his man; all the way back to Fecamp where Maigret and the “villain” engage in fisticuffs on a jetty among the rising tide.
Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett is an interesting mystery novel with a good translation by Daphne Woodward. While it’s certainly difficult to gauge an author’s work in piece translated out of its original language, one can get an idea by the plot and feel of the story. Simenon presents a dreary atmosphere where the police and criminals dwell. The only bright spot comes in the form of Maigret’s wife, who only appears in a few scenes. In order to hunt down criminals, law enforcement must follow them into the murky domains they inhabit, as though any one associated with crime, even on the good side, becomes touched by their darkness. This does not detract from the book at all, but rather adds to it a film noiresque atmosphere. The book, though short, meandered too much to me. Going around a bit and adding in subplots and characters that didn’t go much of anywhere.
The title of this and other editions, Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett, is a misnomer, as Peter the Lett (as he is referred to in this edition) is not enigmatic and is no real mystery. Although we don’t know exactly who he is until the end, it is quite clear from the beginning the different identities he assumes; and there is no real mystery as to his motivations or character. The true enigma of the story is Maigret himself; even though the third person narrator is inside Maigret’s head for the entire novel, the reader never really gets a sense of who Maigret is or what makes him tick as it were. Even the inner workings of his process as all the tumblers fall into place, are kept a mystery to the reader. Maigret just knows why such and such is. He’s reminiscent of a Terminator in that he keeps going until he gets his man, ignoring pain and his body’s need for sleep. Even when the closest thing to a friend the inspector seems to have is murdered by one of Pietr’s associates, Maigret and the narrator barely give pause before continuing on. The only thing Maigret seems to feel is cold as he is constantly seeking warmth from a fire. For me, this was the biggest drawback of the book. Although I am fine getting on board with a character who has super human powers of deduction, I’d like a little heart, which this book is sorely lacking. Maigret is in desperate need of a Doctor Watson.