Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Maigret in Montmartre by Georges Simenon

Sex, drugs, and Maigret
Maigret in Montmartre was originally published in 1951 under the French title of Maigret au Picratt’s. It has since been published in English under the title of Maigret and the Strangled Stripper. This is the 64th work in author Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret series of 103 novels and short stories.

As evident from the aforementioned titles, the plot involves a dead stripper who worked at a club in Montmartre named Picratt’s. One night after work, the young woman, named Arlette, shows up at her local police station and reports that she heard two men in the club talking about how they are planning to murder a countess. Her story is taken seriously enough that she is sent to Maigret’s office for further questioning. As day breaks and she begins to sober up, however, she starts to back away from her story and wants to leave. Without the corpse of a countess, the police have no reason to hold her, and she is allowed to depart. A few hours later she is found strangled to death. There must have been some truth to her story, since it got her killed, but Maigret has no idea to which countess she was referring, and all he knows about the two killers in the club is that one of them was named Oscar.

In his search for Arlette’s murderer, Maigret spends a fair amount of time at Picratt’s, where the owners, a married couple, and their young women employees share a kind of dysfunctional family relationship. Maigret actually seems to enjoy the place, though the stories he uncovers there contain sordid details of prostitution and morphine. All of the Maigret mysteries are somewhat dark, but this one is darker than most. Compared to American film noir of the same era it’s really quite nonchalant in its discussions of vice. As a thriller, it’s an intelligent precursor to the bleak serial killer movies of which we see so many in cinema these days.

The plot device of the unidentified countess is at first reminiscent of 1944’s Maigret and the Fortuneteller (a.k.a. Signé Picpus), in which a man learns of the impending murder of a fortune teller, but nobody knows which fortune teller. Despite the similar premise, this story develops into a different book entirely. Maigret in Montmartre isn’t really a mystery in the sense of Simenon giving you clues and then you figure it out. It’s more of a police procedural in which you follow Maigret on his quest for truth. Over time, details are revealed about the victims and suspects, and you become intimately involved in their lives. It’s less cerebral than some Maigret books, but more visceral.

I was hooked from the first chapter, and I really didn’t want to put the book down until I saw it through to the end. The Maigret novels are consistently very good. One would be hard pressed to find a mediocre mystery in the bunch. I wouldn’t say Maigret in Montmartre is the best in the series, but if you’re looking for a thrilling detective story you will be more than satisfied with this exemplary file from the Inspector’s casebook.
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