Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: Pietr the Latvian

Pietr the Latvian Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Reading this novella is like watching a Hitchcock film. You can see a lot of the skill it took to make it, but you can also see – a little sadly in my case – how dated its narrative technology is.

In many respects, this is the dawn of the police procedural. We get to see Inspector Maigret as he sets out, not to solve a crime, but to prove the title character is guilty. We know the formula today, and it’s often done well in television and film, but it’s new here. There’s some historical interest in seeing Simenon unfold (presumably for the first time anywhere) the possibilities of the procedural. For instance, we get the occasional scene from the antagonist’s perspective. And there are striking moments when discarded aspects of life come into significant play: such as when Maigret relies of a call to a hotel switchboard of the sort that no longer exists.

But, truth be told, this feels a lot longer than it is. Just as Hitchcock “builds suspense” by showing us certain shots longer than we expect, the method feels unsuited for a 21st century reader. My take on Hitchcock has long been that his mastery in the 1950s consisted of waiting just a beat too long, of making his viewers hold their breaths for an instant before giving them what they expected or shocking them with what they feared. Hitchcock doesn’t work for most of today’s viewers because, with our shortened attention spans, we’re waiting what feels like a half dozen beats too long. The rhythm is off, so out of sync with our expectations that there’s less suspense than what-are-you-waiting-for irritation.

Simenon is not about suspense, but a good part of this one is about watch-me-show-you-how-it’s-done. We get, for instance, a quick refresher about the fact of “hit men,” professional killers hired by organized crime. That may have felt like esoteric information when this came out; now it feels condescending.

I suspect (on the basis of his reputation) that Simenon got better the farther he went with these. As this one unfolds, however, the plot gets more and more contrived. Our title character is two people, then he’s one person playing his identical twin brother. For a time he’s a heartless killer and international thief, and then he’s a weary ex-patriate who no longer wants to hurt anyone. I confess I got lost in the final unraveling, but I confess as well that I had stopped caring.

There are elements here worth paying real attention to (probably more attention than I paid), and I may give a later Maigret another shot. Still, this feels as “middle-brow” as Hitchcock has come to feel for me: a kind of art that, however impressive it was in its day, looks more and more like a sullied compromise between what the cutting edge was doing and what the uncritical market wanted.

This is probably a three-star book given its historical significance and the fact that it is, all these years later, a model of efficient story-telling. Still, I have to ding it another star for its casual, unembarrassed anti-Semitism. That may add to the historical quality, but it’s a downer to read all the same.

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