The Prone Gunman is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s most famous novel translated into English, though since only two of his novels have been translated that’s not perhaps saying too much. Both The Prone Gunman and earlier novel Three to Kill have been published in the UK by the always excellent Serpent’s Tail, but with different translators, The Prone Gunman being translated by James Brook.
Three to Kill took a normal man and explored how he changed when his situation changed, becoming a casual killer when removed from his normally bourgeois existence. It was Marxist noir, fiction where the psychology of its protagonist was merely a function of his socio-economic position, and so a dark commentary on the hypocrisy of society.
The Prone Gunman is in some ways a more ambiguous novel. Like its predecessor it is, in places, very violent. Like it’s predecessor, it makes no distinction between descriptions of people and of things, humans are given no more weight than rooms or vehicles. There’s an inescapable implicit judgement in that. Also like it’s predecessor it is at times quite simply a very effective thriller.
Where The Prone Gunman differs though is in its plot, which is bordering on stereotypical and in its slow subversion of that plot. The protagonist here is one Martin Terrier, a professional hit man working for a shadowy organisation known as the company. He wants out, but the company wants him to do one last job, and is prepared to go to terrible lengths to persuade him to come back.
As plots go, that’s pretty trite stuff. And for the early part of the novel we’re in very comfortable territory. Terrier carries out a hit, hands in his notice, casually breaks up with his then girlfriend as he is moving on and not planning to take her with him. He is a sociopath, utterly without affect, when it becomes apparent to him that the company is pursuing him and that those close to him may be tortured, even killed, it is a practical problem and nothing more.
That makes for a good thriller, but then The Prone Gunman goes further. Before too long (and I’m going to avoid any major spoilers here) it turns out that Terrier is a killer for a reason, he has a plan. He left a small town, a girl he loved, swearing one day to come back and have revenge on those who once mocked him and to take the girl finally for his own. Now, a career of murder behind him, he has enough money to make those dreams come true.
Unfortunately for Terrier, while he is a superbly effective assassin, he’s also just not that bright. In fact, one starts to suspect that he’s an emotional as well as a moral imbecile, stuck in adolescence and with a romantic dream fuelling him that bears little resemblance to reality. For ten years he’s lived with a goal in mind, the tragedy of The Prone Gunman is what happens when he turns back up expecting that goal now to be fulfilled.
I have to be careful here, there’s a lot of plot in this book’s 150 odd pages, and it would be very easy to spoil it. I’ll return to the issue of what makes Terrier interesting in a moment, but first I want to talk a bit more about Manchette’s style, the peculiarly passionless way in which he details a scene. The following three quotes are respectively a person, a room and a murder. Here’s a person:
Alex was a twenty-seven year old brunette with short hair, striking blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a beautifully formed neck and jaw line. She was tall with long legs and breasts almost as firm as her thighs. She was dressed now in a three-piece light-gray pantsuit and a white shirt. She had a white leather handbag on her shoulder and in her hand a rectangular wicker basket with a top.
What’s noticeable there is we know a great deal about what Alex looks like, nothing at all about what kind of person she is. It’s not just the female characters that are treated this way, it’s not a question of simply treating women as objects, Manchette treats everyone as objects. The men’s descriptions are equally dispassionate.
Here we have a room:
Terrier took his hands out of his pockets, turned his back to Félix, and went into the house, going directly into the main room, where there was a dining nook, a living area, and a convertible sofa where visiting friends could sleep. The walls were made of rough boards coated with a clear varnish, most of the furniture was rustic and old, and here and there old copper utensils decorated the place. In the hearth burned a wood fire that Félix had lighted a little while before and stoked with a copper toasting fork some sixty centimeters long that he had purchased the year before at an antiques shop in Ireland.
There’s not much difference in tone between the passage describing a beautiful woman, and that describing a fairly expensive but otherwise ordinary living room. And here we have a murder:
Their eyes met. Dubofsky opened his mouth to shout. Terrier quickly shot him once in his open mouth and again at the base of his nose.
At the discreet sound of these shots, the redhead turned. Terrier also turned, and they found themselves face to face just as Dubofsky’s head, which was split open, full of holes, and shattered like the shell of a hard-boiled egg, hit the sidewalk with a squishy sound. Terrier took two steps forward, extended his arm, put the silencer against the girl’s heart, and pressed the trigger once. The girl flew back, her intestines emptying noisily, and fell dead on her back. Terrier got back in the Bedford and left.
That’s actually a very chilling sequence, but the point is it’s delivered in much the same calm voice as everything else. Part of what makes Manchette effective as a writer is his flatness of style, none of it really matters. It’s all just objects and forces in motion, recorded equally and without distinction.
The other interesting thing with Manchette is how deeply cinematic he is, not in the sense of high octane action (though this book does contain some fairly over the top sequences), but rather in that his gaze is an external one. We don’t know what Terrier or anyone else thinks, we don’t know what the author thinks, we merely know what is observed and plainly recounted to us. The author’s eye is a camera, recording without judgement or interpretation, as a reader we must work out for ourselves what is signified by the things we see. This makes Manchette a disquieting writer, his scenes are often ambiguous, doubtful, his refusal to attach significance to people or events leaves the reader devoid of clues normally present.
Manchette uses this most effectively in this book in his descriptions of Terrier himself. At times the writing goes into close up, we see Terrier’s expressions and reactions, but without explanation. Here’s some brief examples. In this first, he’s had a setback:
He seemed to reflect for a moment. He did not seem shocked. Perhaps he experienced a little sadness. Certainly he must have been thinking, for his face was screwed up in concentration.
In this second, he’s suffered a major blow, a disaster for his plans:
Terrier tossed what he was holding onto the pillow and abruptly sat down on the edge of the bed, crossing his gloved hands over his stomach. He leaned forward and gave a long sigh. His mouth was open and he blinked repeatedly. He seemed to calm down after a moment. He got back up.
And here, after extraordinary danger and hair’s-breadth escape (possibly only temporary), he learns that he may have been set up (I assure you, in a novel like this that’s really not a spoiler):
His haggard face at first registered great perplexity; then it registered worry, thoughtfulness or whatever other movements of consciousness that might cause his face to look as it did.
There’s two things going on here, firstly that cinematic eye I spoke of above, and secondly a refusal to give the reader access to the omniscience of the author. Manchette must have an idea what Terrier is thinking, but he doesn’t share it with us, we can only make guesses.
As the novel continues, Terrier’s character becomes more absurd, in a way pitiful, though never less competent an assassin. I can’t detail too much how Terrier’s plans unravel, but it’s fair to say his old love isn’t as he remembered her those many years ago, their relationship is not what he might wish, by the end his whole situation is descending into tragic farce. He starts as a stereotypical cold-blooded killer, he ends with us understanding that he was a highly efficient murderer but a deeply deficient adult human being, and those around him are not really much better. He wants to leave his life, to recapture a dream from adolescence, but as one character angrily says to him, “There’s nowhere to go.”
Manchette’s book is in part I suspect a satire on the very type of novel it starts out being. The cliché intentional as he goes on to tear down that which he has set up.
For all that, I didn’t like this as much as Three to Kill. My impression is that this is generally the more highly regarded novel, and as a pure thriller it probably is the better work, but Three to Kill raised questions about what makes us who we are that I thought challenging and disturbing. The Prone Gunman subverts its own genre, but while it does still cause the reader to doubt their own certainties for me at least it doesn’t do so quite as effectively as that earlier work.