The Strange Case of Peter the Lett
|Original title||French: Pietr-le-Lett|
|Series||Inspector Jules Maigret|
|Followed by||The Crime at Lock 14|
The Strange Case of Peter the Lett (1931) (French: Pietr-le-Letton), a detective novel by the Belgian writer Georges Simenon, is the very first novel to feature Inspector Jules Maigret who would later appear in more than a hundred stories by Simenon and who has become a legendary figure in the annals of detective fiction.
Maigret is notified through Interpol that Peter the Lett, an international fraudster and leader of the notorious Baltic Gang, is travelling to Paris. Furnished only with a description he and a squad from the Police Judiciaire plan to intercept him at the Gare du Nord. However, after seeing a man who matches the description Maigret is called to a carriage of the train to find a body, also matching the description he has.
Tracking the first man to a hotel he is identified as Oswald Oppenheim, a businessman in town to meet an American, Mortimer Levington and his wife.
Meanwhile forensic examination of the body leads Maigret to the sea-side town of Fecamp, and to the family of Norwegian sea-captain, Olaf Swaan, another man who matches Peter's description. While staking out the house, he follows another, identical, man, an itinerant Russian, later named as Fyodor Yurevich. Maigret follows him back to Paris, to a flop-house in the Marais district where he is found to live with a prostitute, Anna Gorskin.
So who is Peter? A vagrant, a seaman, a businessman, a corpse? Is he Russian, Norwegian, American or Latvian? Maigret's persistence is needed to unravel the mystery and track down the real Peter.
In this story we are introduced to aspects of M's detective method. Simenon tells us that, like any other policeman, Maigret “worked with the amazing tools that men like Bertillon, Reiss and Locard have given the police; anthropometry, the principle of the trace and so on”. But that beyond that he sought “the crack in the wall” where the tiniest flaw in a man's camouflage is allowed to slip, giving Maigret a firm grasp on his real nature (p 38). Later Simenon describes the moment when Peter's character “cracked wide open”; having observed that Peter was not merely playing a role, but “living quite different lives in alternation”, Maigret caught, in a bar-room mirror “a quiver in Pietr's lips, and an almost imperceptible contraction of his nostrils”. At that moment Maigret saw “now the guest of the Majestic, now Anna Gorskin's tormented lover” (p94-96).
Simenon recalled, when asked about his conception of his character, that he was sitting on his boat and imagined "a large, powerfully built gentleman I thought would make a passable inspector. As the day wore on I added other features; a pipe, a bowler hat, a thick overcoat with a velvet collar, and, as it was cold and damp, I put a cast-iron stove in his office".
The book has been translated three times into English: In 1933, by Anthony Abbott as The Strange Case of Peter the Lett; in 1963 by Daphne Woodward as Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett; and in 2014 by David Bellos as Pietr the Latvian.
- Georges Simenon Pietr the Latvian 1931; translated D Bellos 2013 Penguin Classics, London ISBN 9780141392738
- Maigret at trussel.com