Category Archives: Manchette Jean-Patrick

The N’Gustro Affair: Jean-Patrick Manchette

As a Jean-Patrick Manchette fan, I was delighted to see that New York Review Books Classics released another title: The N’Gustro Affair. The book is described as a ‘thinly disguised’ retelling of the abduction and murder of Ben Barka who opposed King Hassan II of Morocco. This is a timely release given the revolting murder of Jamal Khashoggi; somehow the two crimes, no doubt because of despicable commonalities, seem tied together.

The book opens with a few opinions about Henri Butron; there’s not much good to say–he’s a “mythomaniac” and a “pathologically case.” From those first impressions, then the book segues to Butron “wearing a smoking jacket” as he records his version of events in a tape recorder. “His own life fascinates him,” but he is rudely interrupted by two assassins who make short work of Butron. One of the assassins calls the police saying “Butron has committed suicide,” and the other grabs the reel from the tape recorder. The assassins wait for the police to arrive and then make a cordial departure. Butron’s recording is delivered into the hands of Marshal George Clemenceau Oufiri who listens with merriment at Butron’s sordid, braggartly tale.

Butron’s tale is clearly laced with the fabrications of an psychopathic egoist. At school he confesses “I could have been brilliant had I cared to be but I didn’t.” Butron, a petty, violent thief consider himself amazingly intelligent, but he also boasts about his sexual conquests. Butron’s version of his life is interrupted with observations and facts from others. These versions meet on some salient points but diverge when it comes to Butron’s fantastically inflated opinion of himself. Butron is a dangerous thug whose submersion into right wrong politics, where he proves to be a useful idiot, creates a patina of idealism on his basic revolting nature.

It’s a commentary on society that someone like Butron, a nasty little man, should not only be tolerated but supported and used to further political aims. The N’Gustro Affair is not easy reading–full of Butron’s grubby bragging about women and violence, it’s nauseating to read about this human cockroach. The long, interesting intro goes into the Ben Barka case, but it’s one of those mixed bag situations where the intro helps you understand the background and the connection with the Ben Barka case but at the same time pulled me away from the plot. My least favourite Manchette to date.

Review copy Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

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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

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The Mad and The Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Eccentric, wealthy businessman, former architect Michel Hartog arrives at a swanky country asylum to collect Julie Ballanger, a young woman who’s lived there, voluntarily, for 5 years. She’s leaving to be employed as a nanny for Hartog’s young nephew, Peter aka “the snotty brat.” Hartog inherited his wealth unexpectedly when his brother and sister-in law died in a plane crash, and their deaths left him in charge of the family fortune and the well-being of his nephew, the heir. Now Hartog has hired a former mental patient as a nanny. What’s wrong with this picture?

If you listen to Hartog’s driver, Hartog has a reputation as a philanthropist for hiring people who have physical or mental problems. Hartog’s home is a “house of defectives.”

Julie nodded. The driver handed her the drink. He had poured himself a Ricard. He drank half of it and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“Physically, you are better built than Old Polio.”

“Old Polio?”

“The nursemaid before you. Completely off her rocker. Fifty if she was a day. And an idiot. What about you? What’s your thing?”

“I don’t understand at all,” said Julie. “My thing? What do you mean?”

“The thing that’s screwy with you.”

“I’m cured,” Julie stated.

“The hell you are!” exclaimed the driver. “The boss’s way of doing good is over the top. He only hires retards. He sets up factories for cripples to work in, can you figure that?”

“Not really.”

“Those guys who go around in little motorized wheelchairs? He’s got them working on a production line! In this house it’s the same baloney. The cook is epileptic. The gardener has only one arm, pretty handy for using the shears. His private secretary is blind. His valet suffers from locomotor ataxia–no wonder his meals arrive cold! The snotty brat’s old nanny–well I told you about her. As for you, you must know yourself.”

Hartog is certainly very odd, but his first scene at the asylum shows us that he’s not a nice man, so does he hire Julie from some sort of philanthropy or contrariness or is there something deeper at play?…..

the mad and the badJulie’s introduction to Hartog’s nephew is not reassuring; Peter is a difficult child, and Hartog, who encourages Julie to drink, is strangely repellent, with a smile which “resembled the coin slot of a parking meter.” Julie is not the only one who hits the booze hard in Hartog’s house; it’s “a drinker’s paradise,” and even the valet downs Guinness with his breakfast omelet. Hartog runs his home in a paradoxical fashion. On one hand, he whimsically expects his employees to be available whenever he pleases, sharply dressed and ready to perform their duties, but on the other hand, he indulges certain vices.  Thrust into this new stressful environment, Julie washes down tranquilizers with alcohol.

Although we never get the whole story of Julie’s past life, some information is revealed in fragmented hints, but these crimes are only the external projections of something much deeper. Julie who claims to be “allergic” to the police is politically alienated from bourgeois society. Hartog plucks her from an insane asylum, hands her a job, a wardrobe full of clothing and a regular paycheck. He expects her to be impressed and grateful:

“What do you think of me?” Hartog asked. “What do you know about me? Do you get the feeling you are in a fairy tale?”

“I don’t believe in fairy tales.”

Okay. But what then?”

“You are a soap, oil, and detergent magnate. You are rich and you are a philanthropist.”

“Let’s not exaggerate.”

“You do Good. You are probably trying to compensate for the feeling of being a usurper. Because your wealth is not the fruit of your own labor. Only the death of your brother and his wife made you the owner of it. You must have developed a strong sense of guilt, even if you had no wish for them to die. Anyway, one always wishes for the death of one’s brother at some level.”

“Congratulations!” said Hartog in a toneless voice. “Is that what they teach at the asylum?”

“It’s not an asylum. It’s an open establishment. I could have left any time I wanted.”

“But you stayed there for five years. Why?”

“You’ve seen my records. You know why.” 

While this is a crime story, The Mad and the Bad also contains a socio-political undercurrent. Hartog expects gratitude from Julie for offering her ‘another chance,’ but he also wants to see awe–awe for his wealth and his accomplishments. But Julie is unimpressed. She sees Hartog as an unexceptional human being with the advantage of controlling a fortune:

“Quite the little rebel,” he observed. “I know all about you. Pickpocket. Arsonist. Congratulations.”

“Of course you do,” replied Julie. “It’s all in my file.”

“You, all you poor people, are just too stupid. You go about things in the dumbest way.”

“Everyone can’t inherit money.”

Hartog shrugged.

“For my part I do something with my inheritance. You people wouldn’t know what to do with one.”

I’m not going to reveal much of the plot–the back cover of the book reveals more than I intend to address here. But since this is a crime novel, a hit man and his sloppy henchmen enter the scene, and Julie’s brief re-entrance into society comes to a screaming halt. Suddenly, she finds herself back in a life on the run, and all of her old survival skills return. Julie describes herself as looking like a “post-op transsexual,” but this is just a reflection that Julie eschews bourgeois society’s signifiers of the feminine ideal; in reality she’s fit, attractive, handy with weaponry and adept at survival. As the book continues, there’s a parallel metamorphosis that takes place as both Julie and Thompson, the hitman with a nagging ulcer, return to primal behaviour.

The Mad and the Bad is a deeply subversive novel and contains the same sharply observed criticisms of bourgeois society that are found in Fatale. As the novel continues, Julie’s ‘madness’ becomes questionable, and as her violent history morphs into her violent present, she is removed farther from society’s norms and sinks deeper into self-preservation. Her past insanity is seen mal-adjustment–a reaction to the hypocrisy of a decadent, materialistic society and a drive to anti-social behaviours; she simply opted to no longer live in the world and voluntarily retired to the asylum where, drugged and removed from aggravation, she was “cured.” Her re-entry into society has turned into a nightmare, and those same anti-social behaviours that sent her into the asylum in the first place, now allow her to survive. Another character, Fuentès, a failed idealist, has also rejected society, and in his case, he’s not locked up in an asylum, but chooses to isolate himself in a bizarrely constructed building whose labyrinth design grants security and is a testament to his individualism. Is Fuentès, another fringe dweller, also mad, or is his abandonment of society a signifier of sanity?

There are moments when Julie seems aware of her delusions, but there are other times when she can’t control herself. One scene in which a preacher emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between religion, the government and the police seems to awaken something in Julie:

She had to get rid of all these bastards who were out to destroy her. This was no time to lose her head. She would have loved to open fire with a machine gun and create a bloodbath.

It’s no coincidence that one of the book’s destructive, brilliantly explosive scenes takes place in a large department store–a temple to consumerism. Violence detonates with a darkly humorous edge as Julie is pushed to extremes in order to shock the customers and shop assistants out of their stupor. Yes, Julie uses the location for her purposes, but as the tranquilizers wear off and she blazes across France, Julie comes alive, all those old skills ignite, and we cheer her on. 

Manchette shows that while the ‘bad’ are predictable, the ‘mad’–those who reject society–are not. This is the fourth Manchette novel I’ve read, and my favourite to date. For its irony, its unexpected twists, and for the marvelous character of Julie, The Mad and the Bad will make my best-of-year list. For those interested, here are reviews of Fatale, The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill

Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith & with an introduction from James Sallis.

Review copy/own a copy

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Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette

“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.

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The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette

“I’d advise against trying to fuck with me.”

prone gunmanAfter 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

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3 To Kill by Jean-Patrick Manchette

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.

3 to killAt 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.

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