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15 october 2011
Pietr-le-Letton is the first novel in which Maigret appears. In many ways, he's the same Maigret who would appear in scores of others: oversized, pipe-smoking, stubborn. He survives on beer and sandwiches delivered to his office, and solves crimes by soaking up the surrounding atmosphere. But Georges Simenon did a lot of tweaking in later decades to get his hero into canonical form. You can see him in Pietr-le-Letton establishing a highly provisional profile for a series detective who would push that profile in unforeseeable ways.
From the start, in Pietr-le-Letton, Maigret doesn't fit. He would never be at home in the milieus he investigated. He's physically too big; his size serves as an emblem for social awkwardnesses. He is not a Parisian; his father had been in service to a rural landowner. By class, income, and occupation, Maigret is an outsider to the monde, a dynamic brought home in Pietr-le-Letton when he has to case a theater premiere and is pulled up short because he doesn't have the right clothes in which to appear in the stalls. We see Maigret in a grand hotel
comme les visiteurs dans les églises historiques où ils essaient de deviner, sans l'aide du sacristain, ce qu'il y a de curieux.Pietr-le-Letton is about identity. It establishes Maigret's identity. It charges him with the lifelong task of ascertaining the identity of others.
[like tourists in historic churches, trying, without the help of the sexton, to figure out what features are interesting.] (100)
Dans tout malfaiteur, dans tout bandit, il y a un homme. Mais il y a aussi et surtout un joueur, un adversaire . . . Il cherchait, attendait, guettait surtout la "fissure." Le moment, autrement dit, où derrière le joueur, apparaît l'homme.Later in the novel, Maigret's adversary asks "Essayez de me dire, tant qu'il est encore temps, quel Pietr je suis! [Try to tell me, while there's still time, which Peter I am!]" (126). The backstory is a conventional, if somewhat hectic, narrative of identical twins, forgery, and jealousy. But it gives Simenon a platform for exploring how we are who we think we are. It is a measure of Simenon's cachet, both highbrow and lowbrow, that he can raise such postmodern issues in the scope of a pulp gangster novel.
[Inside every criminal, every thief, there is a man. But there is also a player, an adversary. . . . He sought, waited for, looked out above all for the "break." The moment, in other words, when the man appeared behind the player.] (49)
Simenon, Georges. Pietr-le-Letton. 1931. Paris: Pocket, 1994.