The idea of Inspector Maigret came to Georges Simenon one afternoon in a cafe after a few glasses of schnapps. As the day progressed, he added the character's various accessories: the pipe, the bowler hat, the thick overcoat, the cast-iron stove in his office. This represents an almost glacial speed of composition for Simenon; he tended to knock off his novels in around eight or nine days.
This is the first Maigret novel, published in serial form in 1930 and here translated by David Bellos, and most of the elements are in place. As with all the Maigret novels, you feel the prose skims over events, as if it's somehow preoccupied with something else. You do not get to see inside Maigret; he seems most interested in his pipe. (To nod to Freud, sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, but you can't help reminding yourself of the word's vulgar connotation in French and, at the same time, Simenon's bonobo-like priapism.)
Maigret is on the trail of the Latvian of the title, a highly superior conman, who has been spotted by various European police departments on a train due to arrive at the Gare du Nord from Bremen. But when the train pulls into the station, a corpse matching Pietr's description is found in one of the train's toilets with a bullet-hole in its chest. And yet, just a few hours later, Pietr the Latvian is seen in the five-star Hotel Majestic, perfectly dapper in a Savile Row suit. Hein?
The satisfactions of most crime novels are principally atmospheric: the procedure is, most of the time, a detail. Maigret hardly does any detecting, really; he just has his hunches, perhaps because even rudimentary research into police procedure would have slowed Simenon down. The atmosphere of prewar Paris, though, was something he had soaked up thoroughly. 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 weather is typically rotten in Maigret novels. In Pietr the Latvian it is cold, wet and very windy pretty much all the way through. (In The Late Monsieur Gallet, which Penguin is to publish next month – they are doing all 70-odd Maigret novels – the weather is too hot.) And if that's not enough for you, there's the whole air of moral squalor (apart, of course, from the upright and imperturbable Maigret). You will search in vain for a supporting character who isn't in some way disgusting – excepting police officers, that is, although they are mainly ciphers.
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! Sentences such as: "It even took Maigret aback, and he had to clench his pipe harder between his teeth." Simenon can make Ian Fleming look like Nabokov. And yet he trails clouds of glory. The roster of names praising him on the flyleaf of this handsome edition include William Faulkner, Muriel Spark, AN Wilson, André Gide, Anita Brookner and PD James – all this despite the knocked-off nature of the plot and the nasty but inconclusive whiff of antisemitism ("Every race has its own smell, and other races hate it," we learn as Maigret searches a sleazy hotel room in the Marais).
I suppose it is a matter of honesty: the books are not trying to be anything other than themselves. Nevertheless, there hangs about them a suggestion of something dark and disturbing, profound almost, as if Simenon had, through a technique not very far from automatic writing, discovered something fundamental about the soul. Perhaps this is where the greatness of his books lies.