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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.
[like tourists in historic churches, trying, without the help of the sexton, to figure out what features are interesting.] (100)
Pietr-le-Letton is about identity. It establishes Maigret's identity. It charges him with the lifelong task of ascertaining the identity of others.
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.
[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)
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.

Simenon, Georges. Pietr-le-Letton. 1931. Paris: Pocket, 1994.