One of our favourite stories about Simenon (as opposed to a story written by him), concerns the latter years of his prolific writing life, when he had already published close to 400 novels. British film director Alfred Hitchcock is said to have telephoned, only to be told by Simenon's secretary that the author couldn't be disturbed because he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock, knowing that Simenon was capable of writing one novel -- or two or three -- every month, replied, "That's all right, I'll wait."

Simenon was a man of prodigious appetites as well as prodigious output, and he liked to go adventuring round the fleshpots in search of sex and sin. "Maigret at Picratt's" allows his sexual side to run free, finding him in his element in the seedy world of drug addicts, "fairies", strippers, street urchins, prostitutes in faux mink coats and exaggeratedly high heels, and hot-pillow hotels that rent rooms by the hour. It is 1951 and Picratt's is a strip club in the risqué Paris nightlife district of Montmartre. It's 4am, closing time, and the Picratt's red sign is one of the few in the neighbourhood still on, "its reflection leaving what looked like splashes of blood on the wet cobbles".

Arlette, a young stripper who's well fuelled on alcohol after inducing the patrons to drink over the course of the night, goes to the nearby police station to report that she's overheard two men in the club plotting to kill a countess. In typical Simenon style, the sergeant picks up "a slight whiff of sweat from her armpits mixed with the smell of her perfume".

Now, where will chapter two take us? First, Arlette, whose ID card proclaims her as Jeanne-Marie-Marcelle Leleu, 24, "choreographic artist", is found strangled to death just a couple of hours later that morning in the bedroom of her flat on Rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. The police can't help noticing, Simenon informs us, that her body has a shaved pussy.

The Picratt's owner, Fred Alfonsi, his wife Rose and the staff can't recall anyone sitting in the next booth to Arlette and a male companion on this quiet Monday night, and so they're sure she couldn't have overheard anyone. But, come chapter three, and inevitably perhaps, suddenly the police do indeed have a dead countess on their hands. She is Countess von Farnheim, a far-gone morphine junkie living in abject squalor on Rue Victor-Massé in the same Montmartre neighbourhood. Like Arlette, she has been strangled, and only hours after the first murder.

Simenon must have got a vicarious thrill via Maigret, who can't avoid the naked flesh as he hangs out late-night at Picratt's in search of answers. Here are the bars and bistros, clubs and streets of Paris that are Maigret's typical beat. Who is the mysterious Oscar? Is he the killer? Can the other strippers, Betty and Tania, give Maigret more insight into Arlette? Were does the countess fit in? What about the earlier death of the count, whose body was found at the foot of a cliff in southern France?

In 1951 there was no "Moi, aussi" movement, and Alfonsi, claiming proprietorial rights as the employer of the disrobing girls, would bang Arlette or the other girls in the nightclub kitchen when his need arose. Rose understood: that's the way her man was and the girls had to "submit". Arlette was the best of them, with a passion, a real urge to arouse men. She was so well practised in the sexual arts she could even teach Fred a thing or ten.

Torrence, a burly inspector at the Police Judiciaire in the Quai des Orfevres, is told by Maigret to stay in a room with the homosexual Pierre and intimidate him until he cracks and tells what he knows. It helps that Pierre is desperate for a fix. Pierre makes Torrence sick: "Just now he drove me so crazy I smacked him full in the face." And later: "I wouldn't touch you with a bargepole, understand I'd be too afraid you'd come. I'm going to have to get the office disinfected as it is."

Georges! We know you liked your sleaze, but really...

Penguin is publishing the entire series of 75 Maigret novels one a month in chronological order in new translations from the French. This one, first published as "Maigret au Picratt's" in 1951, is the 36th in the series and was published previously as "Maigret and the Strangled Stripper" and "Maigret in Montmartre".


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