“It was the rich that interested her, and she went only where there was money.”
Fatale is the third crime novel I’ve read by French author Jean-Patrick Manchette, and I’d rank it above The Prone Gunman and below 3 To Kill. This copy, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, is one of New York Review Books Classics–a publisher who consistently brings excellent titles to the market.
Fatale is a bit of a switch as its protagonist is female, a professional killer named Aimée. That may or may not be her real name as she uses several throughout the course of this short novel. We know just what she’s capable of when, on the second page, she blasts a man with a shotgun. After completing her kill, she quietly and quickly leaves town on a train, using the privacy of a railway carriage to metamorphosize into her next act when she pops up in the dreary little town of Bléville. Here she poses as an affluent young widow interested in purchasing a large local property from the pompous realtor, Lindquist. Within hours she manages to worm her way into Bléville’s ‘best’ society. With her looks and her money, all doors open to her.
Invited to whist games, the opening of the fish market, cocktail parties, a baptism and to other small-town social events, it takes Aimée no time at all to gather information and to sniff out the local dirt as she works out who is willing to pay for a contract-killer-for-hire. She seems to have landed in a viper’s nest of intrigue, adultery, and shady business deals. The town has a very clear social stratification with the plebs as a large, faceless mass who go about their work and their daily lives minding their own business. It’s the upper crusties that interest Aimée.
There’s only one person of any substance who appears to exist outside of the town’s social clique and that’s Baron Jules. He is either an eccentric or a lunatic (depending on your goodwill), and he admits that he’s been spying on the residents and keeping records of their activities for decades. This makes him a very dangerous man. Baron Jules has just been released from some sort of clinic, and he’s intent on annoying the town’s wealthy citizens. The Baron makes an unwelcome appearance at the opening of the fish market, upsetting the Tobies–the pharmacist and his wife, and the owners of the bookshop, the Rougneux.
The realtor broke off. He was staring at something that his interlocutors could not see, somewhere in the crowd. He pursed his lips.
“Shit!” he exclaimed, and coming from him the profanity was startling. “Shit! That lunatic!”
The Rougneux, the Tobies, and senior manager Moutet all turned around at his words and scrutinized the crowd. Their attitudes bespoke anxiety and disgust. Aimée turned around too, her eyebrows slightly raised, and surveyed the gathering without seeing anything out of the ordinary. Sinistrat was all smiles. He lit a Craven A with a Zippo lighter.
“I don’t see anything,” said Madame Rougneux.
“No! No!!” responded Lindquist. “He was there–outside.”
“I don’t see him.”
“He’s not there now. He must have gone off to plan more mischief.”
“It’s simply outrageous,” said Rougneux. “I don’t understand how they could have let him out. Those doctors are idiots. Their clinics are a joke.” He spluttered after every sentence. He seemed mean, and pleased with himself.
“They are all drug addicts, leftists, and that sort of thing,” said Tobie.
“Next time they ought to put him in an asylum,” said Mme Tobie.
“Be that as it may,” said Sinistrat, “don’t count on me to have him locked up.”
Later the realtor Lindquist, who already counts Aimée as someone who can be trusted for the solidarity of class interests notes that the local doctor, Sinistrat, has “nerve” showing up at the fish market opening. According to Lindquist, Sinistrat is a “sort of nihilist” who “votes for that Trotskyite Krivine.” Again this establishes the stratification of Bléville’s society: the masses on the bottom, and then the fiercely maintained layers of the bourgeoisie. Funnily enough while the new fish market is supposed to be “capable of toppling the barriers of social class,” the inauguration event seems designed to reinforce boundaries. This is just one of many examples of bourgeoise double-speak found in the novel.
A nod is given to the idea of politics as a meaningless form of expression–rather as one might select one perfume over another. We are told that there are two newspapers in Bléville:
One of them championed a left-capitalist ideology; the other championed a left-capitalist ideology.
Author Jean-Patrick Manchette, who is largely credited with reviving the crime genre in France was an admirer of Guy Debord and Situationist Theory, and we can see both The Society of the Spectacle and its détournement in the way Aimée, an assassin for-hire who appears to operate without an explicit political motive but for money alone, exploits capitalism by executing the wealthy. Capitalism eats itself.
In some ways Aimée seems to have sprung from the society she both feeds off of and destroys–one capitalist at a time. We know little of her past (although some information is revealed about how she got into the biz), and we know little of her motivations. We do, however, see her feeding greedily, and making a mess, as she guzzles on sauerkraut following a kill. Yet before a kill, she’s all business, eating very little, reading crime novels, and taking fencing and martial arts classes. It’s in her relationship with the very possibly insane Baron Jules that Aimée loses her bearings. Perhaps this is because he blurs the lines of the classes and Aimée is confused by him:
“When I break this decanter of mine,” he said, “I’ll replace it with one with advertising on it.” He held out one of the glasses to Aimée, who reached for it with one hand as she continued toweling her hair with the other. “I am very interested in promotional items and free gifts,” continued the baron. “Also in trash. I have no income, you see, and a man with no income is bound to take a great interest in free gifts and trash.” He took a sip of brandy and clicked his tongue appreciatively. “Given the present state of the world, don’t you know, with the increase of constant capital as compared with variable capital, a whole stratum of the poor is bound to be unemployed and live off free gifts and trash, and occasionally off various government subsidies. Do you know what I’m saying?”
“I am not sure,” said Aimée.
There is some dark humour here–some found in the marvellous character of the misanthrope Baron Jules–a man who despises the bourgeoise of his community, but apart from punching out the bishop and urinating in inappropriate places in order to spoil their parties, he seems unsure of how to handle his contempt for the corrupt class he’s a part of. Then there’s the plaque inscribed with the words “Keep Your Town Clean” which seems an ironic call to action for Aimée as this is exactly what she does best. It’s interesting that the title is Fatale rather than Femme Fatale, but then Aimée is disinterested in sex, rebuffing advances and using her gender as a means of disarming both her prey and her clients.
There’s an afterword by Jean Echenoz placed at the end of the book. It’s placed there for a reason, and it’s best read after finishing this slim volume.