Sunday, 20 April 2014

Penguin no. 1221: Maigret in Montmartre
by Simenon

     'That chap's wearing me out. He's like a wet rag - nothing to get hold of. Twice I thought he was going to come clean. I'm sure he's got something to say. He seems to be at the end of his tether - looks at you with imploring eyes - and then, at the last second, he changes his mind and swears he doesn't know a thing. It makes me sick. Just now he drove me so far that I slapped him in the face with the flat of my hand. Do you know what he did?'
     Maigret said nothing.
     'He put his hand to his cheek and began snivelling, as though he was talking to another pansy like himself: "You're very unkind!" I mustn't do that again, because I bet it gives him a thrill.'

Maigret contemplates an experiment in Maigret in Montmartre, weighing the risks to be faced by one individual against the probable benefit to a community. He knows a murderer is hiding somewhere in Montmartre and he wants to flush him out; his lure is to be a young man who is both a heroin addict and a homosexual, and who is sure to be at risk once Maigret informs the newspapers that he has spent the day being questioned at the Quai des Orfèvre.

The murderer has already strangled two potential witnesses, and he is unlikely to aver from permanently silencing one more, particularly one whose behaviour is likely to become unpredictable as his need for the drug intensifies. Maigret wavers for a short while, reviewing the risks with his Chief, and then he decides to proceed: he cannot see that the death of this young man will be much of a loss.

It is, in part, a decision conditioned on one of his prejudices, for Maigret has little interest in, or sympathy for, drug addicts. He explains this to himself as being on account of their predictability: their behaviour may be unexpected in a local sense, assessed moment by moment, but their history and future path are completely foreseeable, and therefore uninteresting. The problem for Phillipe is that all the policemen portrayed here, including Maigret, seem to hold the two traits of effeminacy and drug addiction in contempt, and observed together they induce an aggressive animosity. The policemen who must deal with Phillipe seem to want to hurt him, and even to torment him, and Phillipe's behaviour suggests that this is something he regularly encounters. He slinks around, flinching at every movement, as though always anticipating the blows of his adversaries.

The story begins with Arlette. She works as a striptease artist at Picratt's, a night-club in Montmartre, and at the end of one shift, in the early hours of the morning, she calls at the local police station and tells them that she has overheard two men planning the murder of a countess; a few hours later she is found dead in her apartment, the victim of a strangulation. It soon becomes clear that she cannot have come by the information she has offered to the police in quite the way she has described, and yet her murder implies that there must have been something in what she was saying. Maigret awaits a phone call telling him that a countess has been found dead.

The phone call comes a few hours later, and he learns that the Countess's death has also been due to a strangulation. But though he may have been interested in the news of her death, Maigret finds it difficult to maintain this interest once she has been found, as the blue flecks visible on her legs mark her as yet another heroin addict; Montmartre seems to abound with them. He leaves the case of the Countess's murder to his subordinates and focuses instead on Arlette, as that case intrigues him. Nothing about her is quite what he would have expected: she seems to have been educated and tidy, but also strongly tempted by drink; she seems to possess none of the attributes of those who typically work in the clubs of Montmartre, and many of the attributes of those who don't. And there is always the question of just what made her come forward and volunteer information which posed such a risk to her own safety.

Maigret  often expresses disdain for middle-class characters, usually on account of their snobberies and pretensions, their inclination to judge, and their obsessions with wealth and appearance. But here the disdain is reserved entirely for the dissolute and for those who prey upon them or facilitate their descent, while the contempt expressed for the sole effeminate character was even more marked. The story reflects the sensibilities and values of a different time, which means it is both interesting and distracting, as such ideas are now rarely expressed, irrespective of whether they are still thought.

First published (as Maigret au 'Picratts') in 1951. Published in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton 1954. Published in Penguin Books 1958. Translation by Daphne Woodward.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1222: Maigret's Mistake
Penguin no. 1362: Maigret and the Burglar's Wife
Penguin no. 1419: My Friend Maigret
Penguin no. 1594: Maigret's First Case
Penguin no. 1678: Maigret and the Old Lady
Penguin no. 1680: Maigret Has Scruples
Penguin no. 1854: The Little Man from Archangel
Penguin no. 2024: Maigret Mystified
Penguin no. 2028: Maigret at the Crossroads
Penguin no. 2251: Maigret in Court
Penguin no. 2253: The Widower
Penguin no. 2590: The Iron Staircase

5 comments:

  1. The attitude to Philippe in this book has always concerned me. The homophobia, in particular, although typical of the period, sticks out, and mars what is otherwise a very good Maigret. In particular, the way in which Maigret absorbs the atmosphere of the club, his relationship with the club's proprietor, Fred, and so on, are really well written, and typical of the best of series. Lapointe, often just a token young detective in the books, is also fleshed out here through his relationship with the dead Arlette. There's lots to admire, then, it seems to me, in spite of the major flaw.

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    1. I agree Philip. The story is very interesting, but it is difficult not to be shocked and distracted by the callous way in which Philippe is treated. As much as I hate the idea of judging anyone in the past for expressing views which are presently unfashionable, in this particular case is it hard not to feel at least uncomfortable. And that is what I meant by describing it as distracting - when I reflect on the story it is that feeling of discomfort which I recall most strongly.

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  2. Maigret prides himself on being nonjudgmental. So, the attitudes described above, which sound atypical for the Maigret I've come to know, make me eager to read the book. I've ordered the French original to control for translation bias. Thanks.

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    1. It will be interesting to read your perspective, David, particularly as you intend to read a French edition. I think Maigret could certainly be described as tolerant, but I think he has his limits - he is never keen on those who consider themselves superior to others, or those who waste their lives, or who take advantage of the weaknesses or desperation of others.

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  3. pretty nice blog, following :)

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