No Room at the Morgue: Jean-Patrick Manchette

“I was fucking sick and tired of being taken for a ride.”

Disgraced ex-cop Eugene Tarpon turned private eye has hit rock bottom. There’s no business, bills are due and Tarpon drinks to forget his woes. He’s about to pack in this latest stage of his failed life and move back home with his mother when a beautiful woman arrives asking for help. Memphis Charles, and no that’s not her real name, is covered with blood. She says her roommate Griselda has been murdered, her throat slit, and instead of calling the police, she asks Tarpon for help. But Tarpon, smelling a rat tells Memphis to leave him alone and call the cops:

If there was a murder, or suicide, or who knows what, you’ve got to call the police, that’s all there is to it. You don’t go running to a private investigator. Not in real life. And then, in real life, a private investigator deals with divorce, store security and, when he has more prestige than I do, industrial spying. Not violent death.

But Memphis, who is apparently a rather resourceful woman, knocks Tarpon unconscious and disappears…

Not a good start.

No room at the morgue

Soon Tarpon is buried up to his neck in a mess which involves Griselda, aka Louise, a murdered porn star, whose resume includes such classics as Forbidden Caresses and The Desires of the Tartars. Thrown into the investigative mix are bombs, drugs, organized crime, pissed-off policemen and even some anarchists who might as well be escapees from The Big Lebowski. As Tarpon digs deeper into Griselda’s murder and the subsequent disappearance of Memphis Charles, the case grows murkier and murkier. The cops investigating the case have no respect for Tarpon as his past doesn’t reflect well on their profession:

“There are two kinds of private detectives,” said Coccoli. “Ex-cops and ex-cons. And sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. Judging by their actions.”

No Room at the Morgue contains a dash of humour which is created by Tarpon’s attitude to life and danger. As characters insert themselves into the investigation, it becomes clear that several parties are involved in the hunt for Memphis Charles, and all of these people think that Tarpon knows more than he does. So for a great part of the novel, he’s followed, beaten up, threatened and kidnapped. Tarpon doesn’t exactly have clues but he just picks up whatever trails open up before him, and he employs recklessness as a tactic.

I heard a car start up behind me and follow me slowly. The engine was old. If that was the tail they were sticking on me, it lacked discretion. But the vehicle ended up passing me a little before Alésia and pulled over near the curb, about ten meters in front of me, and the door opened halfway. I headed straight toward it. That’s how you get killed in the movies.

Movies vs real life is a sub-theme in the book, and it’s a sub-theme accentuated by the characters who swarm over Tarpon’s life. The book’s humour makes it different from the other novels I’ve read from this author: The Mad and The Bad, Fatale, The ProneGunman, 3 To Kill. These 4 noir novels are much darker, however, all 5 are shadowed with political elements.

Tarpon is a character we want to hang with; he’s cynical yet that darkness is alleviated by a wry humour. He’s done bad things, he’s made terrible mistakes, and he’s “broken by alcohol and regrets.” This first Tarpon novel introduces a character who is salvageable–a man whose principles and recklessness make him an anchor for the cases he has in his grubby future. Let’s hope that the publication of this book means that NYRB will publish more.

Great title, great cover.

Review copy

Translated by Alyson Waters

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Manchette Jean-Patrick

4 responses to “No Room at the Morgue: Jean-Patrick Manchette

  1. Just skimming your review of this for now as I have a copy of the book to read. Nevertheless, I’m interested to see that there are touches of humour here and there. Where does it rank in your pecking order of favourite Manchettes? Is it top-tier or lower down?

  2. I don’t like it as much but it’s an unfair comparison as this is a series and the others are hard boiled noir which is a preference. On its own, as its own, I liked it.

  3. New Manchette!

    It sounds great. Comic Manchette is a departure, but I can see how he could pull it off. Even if not his best I’ll still give it a go, and series of course develop over time.

    Any odds on the others being translated do you know?

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