Although Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett is the first novel written by Georges Simenon (1903–89) in the highly popular detective Maigret series, most of the hallmarks of the series as a whole are apparent in this work. The tall, burly, stolid detective, hands in pockets and pipe in mouth, fueled by beer and sandwiches, displays a dogged determination that outstays even the most hardened criminals. With his huge and bony “plebeian” frame, Maigret exercises his strong muscles and even stronger mental capacities to track down, sniff out, pursue, and capture his criminals, tipping his hat to the forensic advances of Bertillon, Reiss, and Locard, whilst at the same time not allowing his work to become suffocated by them. For Maigret does more than exhibit police work as a new science; there is room for mental leaps and intellectual hypothesizing far beyond the parameters of an orthodox scientific logic. He has his own presentiments, his own private musings, and these serve to reveal human beings in all their complexity and fallibility.
Simenon’s Maigret begins the narrative on surveillance, having been tipped off to the whereabouts of the master criminal Pietr the Lett. He tracks Lett to the Gare du Nord, where Maigret thinks he witnesses him disembarking from the train. However, a body is soon found in one of the coaches of the train, a body that matches almost exactly the description of Pietr the Lett that Maigret has on file. Just as Maigret begins the investigation into the murder, he is notified that another man, also fitting the description of Pietr the Lett, has checked into the Majestic Hotel in Paris.
The detective then begins a lengthy psychological game with the man who could be Pietr. He tracks him across Paris, making himself as visible as he can in an attempt to intimidate his suspect, who by this time has taken on the identity of Oswald Oppenheim, ship owner from Bremen. Oppenheim makes contact with Mortimer-Levingston, an American businessman, who appears to be mixed up in the criminal underworld, and to have an ongoing relationship with Oppenheim/ Pietr. Maigret attempts to warn the American off, but to no avail.
In the course of his investigation Maigret stumbles upon a range of colorful, yet ambiguous characters. There is the mysterious Madame Swann, whose daughter is the image of Pietr, and who is married to a mysteriously absent merchant seaman called Olaf. There is the shabby-looking Russian, Fëdor Yurovich, who is also the image of Pietr the Lett; and there is Fëdor’s surly and uncompromising lover, Anna Gorskin, who appears to be implicated in the world of criminality that Fëdor haunts.
After the murder of the man on the train, violence becomes commonplace. Maigret is shot in the shoulder by a hired killer, Pepito Moretto, and Maigret’s young partner, Torrence, is murdered by the same man. José Latourie, one of Pepito’s accomplices, is then also assassinated. Later, Mortimer-Levingston is shot in the face by Anna Gorskin. Despite his injuries, Maigret embarks on a lengthy, relentless pursuit of the man he thinks is Pietr the Lett. This carries the detective in and out of the backstreets of Paris. He shadows him at every turn, and such is the intensity of his chase that eventually Maigret’s target cracks. With the array of evidence he has gathered in hand, Maigret reveals the truth behind the appearances, and unravels the intricacies of the relationships between each of the characters, both criminal and otherwise, at a seemingly easy stroke.
Pietr, it turns out, is in fact the man murdered on the train. His brother, Hans, killed him, and then adopted his identity in and around Paris. Hans also adopted the roles of Fëdor Yurovich, Oswald Oppenheim, and ultimately Olaf the merchant seaman, who were all previously guises of Pietr. This deception of identity underpins the events of the novel, including the assassination attempt on Maigret and the murder of Mortimer-Levingston; Maigret has gotten too close to the truth, and the rich American has been blackmailing Hans into masquerading as Pietr indefinitely so that his criminal operations can continue. Anna Gorskin then murders Mortimer-Levingston to free Hans from the shackles of the blackmail.
Simenon’s novel concludes with Maigret recuperating from surgery, reviewing his own conduct in the case, and ultimately, with a melancholy air, accepting a degree of responsibility for the murder of his young partner.
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Marnham, Patrick. The Man Who Was not Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon. London: Bloomsbury, 1992.