“I’d advise against trying to fuck with me.”
After reading, and being delighted with 3 to Kill by Jean-Patrick Manchette, I turned with anticipation to The Prone Gunman. According to the brief biographical information about Manchette at the end of my copy, he “rescued the French crime novel from the grip of stodgy police procedurals–restoring the noir edge by virtue of his post-1968 leftism.” I don’t know enough about Manchette’s contribution to French crime fiction to argue either way, but the “post-1968 leftism” is certainly evident in 3 to Kill. Unfortunately at the present time, only two of Manchette’s novels are available translated in English, so while I only have these two to compare to each other, I can say that The Prone Gunman was not as enjoyable as 3 to Kill.
The Prone Gunman begins with assassin, Martin Terrier, on assignment in Britain to kill a man. With the assignment completed, Terrier returns to France to his spartan Paris apartment. Terrier has decided to retire, and in preparation, he unemotionally and unceremoniously dumps his current girlfriend, Alex. Then he meets with his employer, Cox to collect payment for his last hit. Cox, who knows Martin Terrier as Christian, is a repulsive man, who represents the shadowy ‘Company’ :
Bent over a low openwork white-lacquered table, Cox was eating a copious brunch of eggs, bacon, grilled sausages, thick little pancakes, and maple syrup, accompanied by black coffee.
“I didn’t have time to eat this morning,” he said as Terrier came in. “Not to sleep much either. I had to discuss your case, Christian”
His lips were sticky with syrup; he patted them with a paper napkin and glanced at Terrier with a look of embarrassment. Tall and fleshy, he had a large pink face, a small nose, and a pouty mouth. His short dull-blond hair was impeccably trimmed. He had not taken off his camel’s-hair overcoat.
While Terrier makes it clear that he plans to retire, Cox urges him to remain in the pay of the Company–offering him a sum of 200,000 francs for the next hit. Terrier declines even though Cox hints at creating difficulties. Terrier leaves and then makes a stop at the squalid home of his financial advisor, Faulques, a man who admits that people don’t trust him because he looks “seedy.”
Terrier–a man of few words and mostly violent action–then returns to the area of his youth–Nauzac. In this town, Terrier intends to reconnect with the love of his life, wealthy Anne Freux. He’s spent the last ten years as a mercenary and then as a hit man, methodically accepting assignments, killing people and building a nest egg big enough to impress Anne and her family. And while now, ten years later, Anne is “just as beautiful as he remembered her,” she’s also married. But nothing deters Terrier; he fully expects to be able to persuade Anne away from her foolish husband, Felix.
But just as Terrier settles in with his plans to charm, seduce or steal Anne away, Terrier’s violent past catches up with him, and soon both he and Anne are on the run….
The book has the feel of a Charles Bronson stone-killer adventure, and I had that feeling almost immediately on page one. Reinforcement for that idea arrived on the next page when Terrier’s intended victim goes into a cinema which is showing “a mediocre American thriller starring Charles Bronson.” At that point, I felt that I was on the right track with the Terrier-Bronson connection–although the fact that the text mentioned that the film was only mediocre should have alerted me for what was ahead.
The Prone Gunman contains scenes of incredible violence, and some of that violence comes with details–bits of brain matter, intestines, and even a candle about to be shoved up a vagina.
The novel’s non-stop action, sparse dialogue, and frequent change of venue give the sense that The Prone Gunman would make an excellent film. A great deal might be lost in a cinematic version of the more interesting 3 to Kill, whereas The Prone Gunman screams for a screenplay. The Prone Gunman was Manchette’s last novel, and its plot–the hitman who wants to retire is fairly standard. Manchette’s hit man, however, never becomes human. There are no soft spots, and it’s impossible to confuse Terrier with an edgy Bronson-style hero. Terrier is first and foremost a killer–a man who tracks down his youthful sweetheart for some insane reason with the determination of a hunter determined to bag the rabbit and bring it home.
In a Bronson film, even though this iconic action hero frequently engaged in questionable moral actions, it was impossible not to get fond of him as he blasted or beat his way through his enemies. There was always a human side to Bronson’s heroes–a vulnerability, and eventually, of course, we realise that there’s a reason for his actions. Manchette’s Terrier, on the other hand, doesn’t become more appealing in time. There is an early instance, for example, when he could show mercy, but doesn’t, and as the novel develops, there are times when he’s a killing machine. Now given the subject, that is expected, but when it comes to the love-of-his-life, Anne, Terrier still evinces that almost programmed state of single-minded moronic drive. After ten years, Anne doesn’t turn out to be exactly what Terrier expected, but she’s objectified by Terrier (just like Alex). What Anne is like and what Anne wants is all beside the point, and soon Terrier is on the run dragging Anne along with him, rather like a suitcase.
In 3 to Kill, Manchette’s hero, Gerfaut is a middle-class businessman who is inadvertently swept up by crime. Forced to go on the run, Gerfaut reverts to his old instincts in his drive to survive. Manchette’s theme–an ordinary man who is derailed by fate–is easy to identify with. Terrier, on the other hand, is a species apart. And while he’s an excellent assassin, beyond that role, he makes mistakes and doesn’t always have good judgement. As things continue to go wrong for Terrier, a streak of black humour makes an appearance in a pathological what-can-g0-wrong-next scenario. Terrier isn’t exactly incompetent, but he has more than one screw loose and that’s deadly when combined with his severely impaired judgement.
On a final note, I can’t help but wonder if Manchette chose the book’s title The Prone Gunman deliberately as a play on words of the phrase: The Lone Gunman. And if that’s a possibility, then that theory would open up all sorts of additional interpretations. Translated by James Brooks
For another viewpoint, read the excellent review here