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maigret au picratt's

22 february 2020

I came at Georges Simenon's Maigret novels all backwards, and am still digging out of my initial misperceptions, 40 years later. The early series of Maigrets that established the fictional sleuth's fame in the early 1930s often give us a Maigret who might as well be a consulting detective in an Agatha-Christie-inspired cozy. But I initially read the later, longer series of novels that spans the late 1940s through the early 1970s. These later novels are archetypal "detective-inspector" fictions, mixing police procedural with their hero's intuitive, cerebral approach. That to me is the "true" Maigret, but it's not the original Maigret. In many ways the series and even their heroes are separate things, linked mainly by the central character's name.

In Maigret au Picratt's, an early entry (1951) in the later series, the contrast between procedure and Maigret's meditative, immersive non-method is sharply drawn. A striptease artist wanders into a Montmartre police station to report that she's overheard two men plotting the murder of an unspecified countess. She then tries to retract her story, and wanders off again. Before long, the dancer is herself found murdered. Later on, not far away, so is a countess.

Lots of doors to knock on in Montmartre and environs, but while his colleagues are spending shoe leather, Maigret decides that the best way to solve the murders is to go and drink in the club where Arlette claimed to have overheard the murder plot: the last-resort dive "Picratt's."

Complicating matters is that Maigret's junior colleague Lapointe is a regular at Picratt's, and had fallen in love with the late Arlette – and had in fact been at her side when she claimed to have overheard the conspirators hatching their murder plot. But Lapointe heard no such thing. Clearly, the murder of the countess would have to have been the bizarrest of coincidences if Arlette had completely invented the story. So she must have independently learned of the danger the countess was in, somewhere else. Maigret's team of operatives fans out to find out where, and in the process develops a theory that ultimately holds water.

As the net closes on the main suspect, Maigret "regrettait un peu … d'avoir établi son quartier general au Picratt's" (172) – somewhat regretted having made his headquarters at Picratt's – but only somewhat. He bestirs himself to be in at the showdown: and afterwards, heads straight back to Picratt's.

The narrow, depressing nightclub exerts a strange spell over the commissaire,

cette sorte de tunnel pourpre au bout duquel la porte dessinait un rectangle gris clair, comme un écran sur lequel seraient passés les personnages sans consistance d'un vieux film d'actualités. (37-38)

a kind of purple tunnel at whose end the door marked out a pale grey rectangle, like a screen across which insubstantial characters out of an old newsreel might pass.
Simenon is known for his "cinematic" prose, which once in a while becomes literally so, invoking movie images in support of his word-picture. These terse prose details can pass unnoticed in the context of a brisk policier plot, but they are why one keeps coming back to Simenon while discarding so many other detective novels.

Simenon, Georges. Maigret au Picratt's. 1951. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1980.