I came across the name ‘Jean-Patrick Manchette’ recently in connection with another crime novel. I’d never heard the name before, and so curious, I managed to find a couple of used copies of this author’s books. Manchette died in 1995, and apparently only two of his novels have been translated in English: 3 To Kill and The Prone Gunman.
At 134 pages, 3 To Kill is a lean, mean novella that concentrates on the events rather than the characterisations. It’s the story of a businessman, Georges Gerfaut who suddenly finds himself torn out of his humdrum existence and forced into a world of blackmail, violence and contract killers.
Late one night Gerfaut is driving home, when he has a near accident with a careening Citroen that passes by at high speed, and then a few minutes later he passes the Citroen now off the road and ploughed into a tree. Georges drives by but decides to stop and investigate–not from a moral imperative or a desire to help the injured but from the “idea that the people in the Citroen were no doubt there in the darkness noting his plate number and liable to report him.”
Gerfaut finds the driver of the car horribly injured, and although concerned that the man might bleed all over his nice upholstery, he takes the dying stranger to the nearest hospital and then slyly abandons him there. Gerfaut imagines that his small–but significant–role in the drama is over, but in fact his role is just beginning….
Soon on the run for his life from two very determined hit men, Gerfaut discovers that he has survival instincts he didn’t know he possessed, and so gradually Gerfaut’s middle-class businessman persona slips away and the raw material underneath reveals a man who is determined to survive.
An admirer of Situationist Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle), Manchette is credited with reviving French crime fiction and is seen as the direct literary descendant of author Georges Simenon and Leo Malet. Since I am interested in Debord and a fan of Simenon and Malet, I knew I had to read Manchette (whose name incidentally in slang means ‘handcuffs’). In 3 To Kill, Manchette includes true crimes committed by the state and weaves them into the fictional story of Gerfaut–an ordinary man who is swept up in events that are more significant than he can imagine. Manchette drops information about Gerfaut’s reliable friend, Lietard, a man involved in the events of October 17 1961 when it’s estimated (depending on who you ask) that somewhere between 40-400 pro FLN Algerian protesters were murdered by police. The protesters were either beaten to death at police headquarters or beaten and thrown in the Seine to drown, and Lietard witnessed the events but survived to tell the tale and exact his own form of revenge.
Other sections of the novel include details of Alonso, an army officer in the Military Investigations Unit (SIM) of the army of the Dominican Republic. Under the command of (the very real) Elias Wessin y Wessin:
“Alonso and Elias lived like kings. And they were untouchable. For while Santa Domingo, in contrast to many other places, was untouched by war with any foreign power, here as everywhere social war was a fact of life. And here as everywhere the chief function of the armed forces was to prevail in the social war whenever the need arose. In this connection, the intelligence-gathering role of the SIM was essential. To San Isidro [air base] were regularly brought persons suspected of collusion with the class enemy, and the job of the SIM under Alonso’s direction was to make them talk by beating them, raping them, slicing them up, electrocuting them, castrating them, drowning them in places ingeniously designed for the purpose, and cutting their heads off.”
With the good old days over, Alonso has left the Dominican Republic and is now living in France under an assumed name in a house fortified against those who may come seeking revenge. Fate brings Alonso and Gerfaut together on a collision course.
Simenon’s romans durs novels frequently include a middle-class male protagonist who is derailed from the routine of his boring existence by fate. But once unleashed these men, like escaped hamsters, often come to a sad end or else simply run out of steam. But in 3 To Kill, Gerfaut sheds his bourgeois attributes like an old ill-fitting skin, and goes underground until he emerges with the determination to find his enemies and would-be assassins and “gouge their eyes out and tear their balls off.”
There’s not much in the way of character development (probably expected at 134 pages) but instead we see Gerfaut shaped by violence circumstance. Yet in spite of the novella’s brevity, there is a lot going on in these pages. Manchette’s slim novella exposes the inauthentic nature of Gerfaut’s bourgeois existence through the action. First there’s Gerfaut’s indecision about whether or not to stop and check on the accident in the first place, and in this instance a moral decision takes a backseat to his worry that he’ll be reported. Then when Gerfaut is faced with whether or not to help the dying driver of the Citroen, initially Gerfaut’ s commodity fetishism regarding the upholstery of his posh Mercedes overrides moral considerations for the bleeding stranger. Once he’s fleeing for his life, and forced into a new primitive life, Gerfaut stops caring about appearances and no longer worries about possessions.
Other scenes hint at Gerfaut’s role in the student uprising in May 68, and this is contrasted to his present role in management. Gerfaut is recuperated back into mainstream capitalist society from his 68 student involvement, and then Manchette tracks Gerfaut’s return, through adversity, to a more authentic primitive existence. 3 To Kill is a very cinematic novel so it wasn’t too surprising to see that the book had been made into a film, the 1980 3 Hommes a Abattre (starring Alain Delon). In fact, if you toodle over to IMDB, you can see the long list of films based on Manchette’s work–including the Chabrol film, Nada.
Manchette is a good discovery for me, but since only 2 of his novels are translated into English it’s one of those hello-goodbye discoveries. And that’s unfortunate.
Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith.