Three to Kill is a 1976 slice of extraordinarily black French noir fiction, written by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated in the Serpent’s Tail edition by Donald Nicholson-Smith. It was brought to my attention by Guy Savage over at the His Futile Occupations blog, here. There’s good detail there on the place of Manchette within French literary traditions, which I don’t plan to repeat here but do recommend.
The essence of noir is the examination of the role of the individual within society, a moral examination. In Three to Kill, that examination takes the form of an inquiry into the way in which individuals are shaped by the social and economic forces surrounding them, the way in which ultimately individuals are a product of those forces (the novel’s philosophy is distinctly Marxist).
Plotwise, the novel is simple. Georges Gerfaut is a mid-level manager who is driving home one evening when he sees what appears to be an accident. Fearful that he will be reported if he drives by without helping, he stops, and takes an injured man to hospital (though begrudgingly so, due to the risk of blood getting on his car seats). Georges does not stay to give his details at the hospital, leaving before they can be obtained, and soon after goes to holiday at the seaside with his wife and daughters. There, two hit men try to murder him, and Georges ends up on the run, alienated from his previously comfortable life and determined at all costs to remain alive.
The above synopsis makes this sound like a suspense novel. However, the novel opens after these events (then jumps back to just before they started), and explains within the first two pages that Georges has killed at least two men. As Georges is alive to open the novel and there were two hit men men pursuing him we have a good idea what must happen. The point then is not whether Georges survives, whether the hit men succeed. The point is what Georges is and what makes him what he is.
I’ll return to that in a moment, first though I’d like to quote the opening chapter of the novel, a brief passage that immediately set a profoundly unsettling tone:
And sometimes what used to happen was what is happening now: Georges Gerfaut is driving on Paris’s outer ring road. He has entered at the Porte d’Ivry. It is two-thirty or maybe three-fifteen in the morning. A section of the inner ring road is closed for cleaning, and on the rest of the inner ring road traffic is almost nonexistent. On the outer ring road there are perhaps two or three or at the most four vehicles per kilometer. Some are trucks, many of them very slow moving. The other vehciles are private cars, all travelling at high speed, well above the speed limit. This is also true of Georges Gerfault. He has had five glasses of Four Roses bourbon. And about three hours ago he took two capsules of a powerful barbiturate. The combined effect on him has not been drowsiness, but a tense euphoria that threatents at any moment
to change into anger or else into a kind of vaguely Chekhovian and essentially bitter melancholy, not a very valiant or interesting feeling. Georges Gerfault is doing 145 kilometers per hour.
Georges Gerfaut is a man under forty. His car is a steel-gray Mercedes. The leather upholstery is mahogany brown, matching all the fittings of the vehicle’s interior. As for Georges Gerfaut’s interior, it is somber and confused; a clutch of left-wing ideas may just be discerned. On the car’s dashboard, below the instrument panel, is a mat metal plate with Georges’s name, address and blood group engraved upon it, along with a piss-poor depiction of Saint Christopher. Via two speakers, one beneath the dashboard, the other on the back-window deck, a tape player is quietly diffusing West Coast style jazz: Gerry Mulligan, Jimmy Giuffre, Chico Hamilton. I know, for instance, that at one point it is Rube Bloom and Ted Koehler’s “Truckin'” that is playing, as recorded by the Bob Brookmeyer Quintet.
The reason why Georges is barrelling along the outer ring road, with diminished reflexes, listening to this particular music, must be sought first and foremost in the position occupied by Georges in the social relations of production. The fact that Georges has killed at least two men in the course of the last year is not germane. What is happening now used to happen from time to time in the past.
Note the uncertainty in that description. What time is it? How many vehicles are there? How many men, exactly, did Georges kill? There is no narrator, the voice we hear is the author’s, the novel is obviously his own creation so clearly the uncertainties in this section are deliberate. I found this a disquieting opening, a note of ambiguity already present, although too it is undeniably cinematic, easy to visualise.
Marchant employs a curiously dispassionate prose style, he writes without affect, lavishing as much care on the description of everyday objects as he does people’s bodies or the people themselves. There is a coldness to the descriptions, individuals, like things, are objects which have a nature and a role. Brand names are always cited, the label given a thing is as important as the thing itself. It is reminiscent in this of the much later US novel American Psycho, though Three to Kill is better written and without the sadism of Ellis’ novel which can make it ultimately an unpleasant read (American Psycho for me in any event becomes fatally flawed when it is made explicit, rather than ambiguous, that Bateman is in fact a killer and not merely a fantasist).
Recrossing the room, he crushed his cigarette out in an alabaster ashtray, which he took back with him to the sofa, then he sat down again and lit another Gitane filter with his Criquet lighter. The quadrophonic speakers softly dispensed soft music. Gerfaut smoked and contemplated the living room, only a portion of whose lighting, the dimmest, was on at present. An elegant penumbra consequently enveloped the armchairs and matching sofa; the coffee table,; the off-white plastic cubes bearing a cigarette box, a scarlet plastic lamp in the form of a mushroom, and recent issues of L’Express, Le Nouvel Observateur, Le Monde, Playboy (American edition), L’Écho des Savane, and other periodicals; the record cabinets containing four or five thousand francs’ worth of classical, opera and West Coast jazz LPs; and the built-in teak bookshelves with several hundred volumes representing the finest writing ever produced by humanity and a fair amount of junk.
That last phrase by the way, “the finest writing ever produced by humanity and a fair amount of junk”, I suspect I’m far from alone in recognising my own shelves in that. That aside, however, what we have here are the trappings of a bourgeois lifestyle – a comfort taken in the material, in its quality, it’s evidence of good taste and in the expense and therefore success it represents. By contrast, the hit men who pursue him live out of hotel rooms, their possessions kept in bags in the rear of their car. Georges is defined by his things, as perhaps are they too, for Manchette describes in equal detail the tools of their particular trade.
Manchette’s emotionless, flatly descriptive, style extends to the novel’s action sequences too. This is a novel which contains scenes of shocking violence, described in the same tone as Manchette describes a stereo system or a domestic argument.
The Lancia turned on a dime and drove into the gas station via the exit. The car sprang towards Gerfaut, who pulled the trigger of the automatic. The Lancia’s windshield exploded. At the same time, Gerfaut jumped back, stumbled, and fell hard against a coffee machine, bruising his back agonizingly. The bright red car bore down on him, rocking and pitching. Gerfaut fled for his life, but the Lancia swerved and accelerated, threatening to smash Gerfaut into the office window. Gerfaut pirouetted away, but the car’s left headlight struck him glancingly on the buttock and catapulted him across the cement on his belly. The Lancia utterly demolished the office window. With a thunderous roar, huge pieces of broken plate glass, road maps, toolboxes, cans of oil, lightbulbs, and cartoony promotional figures made of wire and latex were hurled in every direction.
Even amidst the chaos and danger of this scene, Marchant takes the time to itemise the objects at hand, to list them one by one – his eye as a novelist like the eye of a camera – recording what is present without judgement of importance.
As the novel progresses it becomes clear Gerfaut was not always a bourgeois, that he is in fact a ’68er (and who in France wasn’t? I sometimes suspect there are people born in the ’70s who claim to have been on the Paris barricades in ’68). He has friends who were involved in struggles against the police in which hundreds of Algerians were killed. Few of them are now political, but only Georges has completely adopted the lifestyle he once presumably detested. Soon after the opening, an old comrade now a trade union organiser genially refers to Georges as a sell-out, as the two of them share a whisky. Indeed, it is worth noting that the whole backdrop of the novel is one of industrial unrest, strikes, labour activism, a whole strata of society keen to destroy capitalism and bring down men like Georges and all he stands for. Georges was once one of them, but his situation changed and with it his outlook.
Which takes me to another key theme, Georges’ plasticity as an individual. When Georges’ situation changes, so does he. When he is a comfortable manager, he lives as such and thinks as such, vaguely unhappy but making no move to change his situation. When he is forced to go onto the run, he adapts swiftly, adopting the lifestyle of a fugitive with ease and leaving behind his wife and two daughters with barely a second thought, changing his life as easily as he discards a pair of broken shoes. When Georges is forced to kill, he becomes a killer just as readily, and just as much without thought. He is a product of his circumstance, an expression of the social means of relation.
Georges’ is not a naturalistic portrait, rather it is a Marxist analysis of the individual as an economic and social unit. Georges sees himself through the prism of received experience, understanding his own adventures at first as if he were himself a character in a novel or film, it is only as hunger and exposure begin to threaten his survival he starts to understand the difference between his narrative of his flight and the grim reality. As he does so, he becomes less reflective, more a man of action and necessity, no longer a product of the class that bore him. Gerfaut becomes a woodsman and hunter, acclimatises himself without difficulty to life in a small mountain cottage with an old man for company. Reduced to simple circumstances, he becomes a simple man.
Gerfaut made himself useful by running little errands in the village; he would pick up tobacco for instance, or Riz la Croix cigarette papers, or lighter fluid when the need arose. Occasionally, at the café-tabac, he would glance through the regional paper, Le Dauhpiné Libéré, to see what was happening in the world. Sporting events took up as much space as ever, Third World riots, famines, floods, epidemics, assassinations, palace revolutions, and local wars still followed one another in quick succession. In the West the economy was not working well, mental illness was rife, and social classes were still locked in struggle. The Pope deplored the unrestrained hedonism of the age.
Georges is firmly portrayed as an example of his class and situation, his enemies are less clear cut, but are perhaps themselves examples of another form of enemy of the working class. One is a retired Dominican officer in hiding whom somehow Georges has crossed, the others are two hit men sent after Georges. We see the soldier’s solitary domestic routine, the hitmen’s friendship and casual brutality, they are monsters, but like Georges they are simply presented as they are, without further comment. The Dominican helped crack down on suspected Leftists in his homeland, “persons suspected of collusion with the class enemy”, the hit men now serve to carry out his wishes in the US (perhaps themselves an example of false class consciousness, but I go there beyond my knowledge of Marxist theory).
Whatever the characters’ individual traits, their collision here is a class collision. It is a situation where a man is taken from his bourgois comfort and exposed to the brutal realities of class struggle, and who when so taken ceases almost immediately to be an intellectual and a productive member of ordinary society and instead becomes as ruthless as those who hunt him.
This is a well and leanly written novel, quintessential noir in its critique of a society and a way of life. It is disquieting in its giving the same priority to the description of a woman’s stomach as it does to a glass of whisky or a bullet tearing through a person’s side, all of them illustrated with the same precision and lack of compassion. It is alien too in its explicitly Marxist stance, with vast dispassionate economic forces shaping human lives as effortlessly as a car factory shapes the products it spits forth. Sadly, it is one of only two by Marchant that have been translated into (American, if it matters) English. I intend to pick up the other without delay.
Three to Kill