There’s a biographical blurb at the front of this series of Penguin Maigret novels that quotes Simenon:
My motto, to the extent that I have one, has been noted often enough, and I’ve always conformed to it. It’s the one I’ve given to old Maigret, who resembles me in certain points . . . “understand and judge not.”
I don’t like this kind of self-praise (an author creating a fictional hero who he then compares himself to), and what’s more I’m not sure it’s an accurate a description of old Maigret. The chief inspector can make up his mind about people pretty quickly, and isn’t afraid to get rough right away with people he makes snap judgments about. He is also very much a man of his time, and this book was published in 1951.
I don’t believe in applying current rules for political correctness in a rear-view mirror, to punish authors, in Auden’s phrase, under a foreign code of conscience. But you do have to shake your head a bit at the treatment of the gay junky Philippe here. Maigret immediately pegs him as a “fairy.”
“Do you like men?”
Deep down, like all fairies, he was proud of it, and an involuntary smile formed on his unnaturally red lips. Maybe getting told off by real men turned him on?
That’s pretty bad. Even worse, Maigret immediately hands Philippe over for a brutal interrogation, the results of which are later reported back to him by the fellow tasked with the dirty job:
“He’s exhausting, that guy. He’s as limp as a rag doll, there’s nothing to get hold of. Twice I thought he’s going to talk. I’m sure he’s got something to say. His resistance seemed shot. His eyes begged for mercy. Then at the last second, he changes his mind and swears he doesn’t know anything. It makes me sick. Just now, he drove me so crazy I smacked him full in the face. Do you know what he did?”
Maigret didn’t say anything.
“He held his cheek and started whining as if he was talking to another fairy like him. ‘You’re mean!’ I mustn’t do it again. I bet it excites him.”
Maigret could not help smiling.
No, this isn’t one of old Maigret’s finer moments, and it really puts the lie to the idea that he seeks only to understand and judges not. At one point he can’t help exclaiming of the people he’s investigating “What a filthy bunch!” Prostitutes, junkies, killers, drug-dealers, and fairies. Later in the book he’ll even send the “nasty little worm” Philippe – who, I should point out, is really just a junky – out as bait to draw the killer. A dangerous plan, at least for Philippe, though Maigret had done something similar in A Man’s Head. In any event, he really isn’t that concerned about Philippe anyway. “If there is an accident, well, I don’t think it will be such a great loss.”
(As an aside here, in the series of BBC Maigrets starring Rowan Atkinson this is one of the novels they adapted. They kept the antipathy shown toward Philippe by the other characters, and even included a bit of the rough stuff at the police station, but they kept Maigret himself above it all. He puts an end to Philippe’s being given the third-degree, coming into the interrogation room to remind everyone that “He [Philippe] is a human being.”)
A double standard for bad behaviour is in play. While Philippe is roundly despised, a sleazy strip-club owner who has sex with his dancers virtually right in front of his wife turns out to be a pretty decent guy. There’s even a curious point at the end where he and Maigret sit together comparing notes on the case and Maigret thinks to himself that they are “almost in the same line of business. They both had a roughly similar approach, just different styles of working and different reasons for doing so.” A reflection made about a guy who admires the killer for being such an effective groomer of young women!
All of this is disconcerting, but Maigret at Picratt’s is otherwise a solid entry in the series. A beautiful young dancer (as in “dancer”) is murdered, landing Maigret knee-deep in a cross-section of seedy Montmartre characters with shady pasts. Thrilling stuff for the most part, as long as you keep in mind that it was 1951 and they felt differently about a lot of things back then.