Category Archives: Manchette, Jean-Patrick

The mucus shimmered as the sun rose higher.

The Mad and the Bad, by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

The Mad and the Bad is my fourth Manchette. I’ve now read every one that I’m aware of having been translated into English so it’s fair to say I’m a bit of a fan.

Michel Hartog is a cold and arrogant businessman whose “smile resembled the coin slot of a parking meter.” As the novel opens he’s visiting a private psychiatric hospital where he’s hiring newly-discharged inmate Julie Ballanger as a nanny for his nephew Peter. Ballanger’s spent five years inside which makes her an interesting choice.

By all accounts Hartog is something of a small-scale philanthropist employing those who might otherwise struggle to find work. As his driver notes:

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 locomotive ataxia – no wonder his meals arrive cold!

In that context a former psychiatric patient as nanny seems natural enough, but Hartog doesn’t seem the sort of man who cares much about the welfare of others. Soon after her arrival Hartog is encouraging Julie to help herself to his well-stocked drinks cabinets (plural intentional) and he seems to have no affection at all for young Peter.

Peter has his own issues. On his first meeting with Julie he loses his temper and smashes his television. Hartog simply orders another. Peter can have anything he wants, can break anything and know it will be replaced, the only thing he isn’t given is affection. Julie is the first person to show him any kindness at all.

Julie is the protagonist here and it’s quickly apparent that not all is quite right with her either. She washes down tranquilisers with whiskey and her past includes petty theft and arson. She thinks she looks like a “post-op transsexual” but the reactions of others show that’s not the case. She has absolutely no experience of working with children.

Things get stranger yet when a menacing stranger named Fuentes appears and beats Hartog bloody. Hartog likes to portray himself as a gifted businessman – a visionary shaping the world. The reality is that he inherited his wealth from his dead brother and Fuentes is a former business partner so enraged by some old betrayal that his attacks have become habitual.

Add to the mix a dyspeptic English assassin named Thompson and what follows is a typically savage Manchette tale. Thompson is plagued by possibly psychosomatic ulcers and can only relieve the pain of them by killing. He’s been hired to kill Peter and Julie will soon be the only thing standing in his path.

Manchette is always political and this is no exception. On the surface Hartog is what society asks us to aspire to – he is rich, successful, he creates employment and his wealth trickles down to his employees. In reality he’s the product of unacknowledged good fortune. He hasn’t earned what he has but he’ll fight to the death to keep it.

Julie on the other hand is unhinged. She is quite genuinely dangerous (as one rather unfortunate motorist who picks her up and tries it on with her discovers). Her madness puts her beyond societal norms and ironically it’s her feral qualities that now prove essential to her survival.

Much of the book is an extended chase with Thompson and his associates pursuing Julie and Peter across France. The action culminates in a masterful set-piece where the assassins follow Julie and Peter into a supermarket where their frustration boils over resulting in a running gun battle through the aisles of this consumerist temple:

Coco watched fragments of plastic toys spraying into the air along the path of his bullet. He was trembling. In his hand was an old Colt revolver, solid, crude, and with a tendency to shoot to the right. For a split second he caught sight of Julie and Peter down an aisle and he fired again, winging a carton of laundry detergent.

The Mad and the Bad is darkly funny. The absurdity of a society which praises men like Hartog and which thinks it’s important which of variously labelled but ultimately identical soaps you buy is mirrored here in the absurdity of Hartog’s domestic arrangements; Thompson’s increasing gastric distress as Julie continues to elude him; and a brutal fight to the death amidst canned goods and product displays. The title suggests a dichotomy between Julie (the mad) and Hartog (the bad) but the reality is that the distinction isn’t so easily drawn.

This isn’t my favourite Manchette (that would still be Three to Kill), but it’s still a blazing thriller with a challenging political undercurrent. The mad may be dangerous, but it’s the sane who hire killers and profit from death.

Other reviews

Guy Savage wrote about this here and went a little more into the politics than I have. I agree with pretty much everything Guy says.

If you want to check my other Manchette reviews they are: Three to Kill; The Prone Gunman; and Fatale.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir

Fundamentally, this is political.

Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette and translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Fatale is under 100 pages long, and that’s including a Jean Echenoz afterword. By page two the protagonist has coolly murdered a man without hesitation or warning. Soon after she’s on a train out of town, she’s dyed her hair blonde and she’s carrying a briefcase full of money. That’s the thing with Manchette, he doesn’t mess around.

Fatale

Love that cover.

Here she is, still on the train. She’s ordered food:

Next she lifted the cover of the hot plate, revealing a choucroute. The young woman proceeded to stuff herself with pickled cabbage, sausage and salt pork. She chewed with great chomps, fast and noisily. Juices dripped from the edge of her mouth. Sometimes a strand of sauerkraut would slip from her fork or from her mouth and fall on the floor or attach itself to her lower lip or her chin. The young woman’s teeth were visible as she chewed because her lips were drawn back. She drank champagne. She finished the first bottle in short order. As she was opening the second, the pricked the fleshy part of a thumb with the wire fastening, and a tiny pearl of scarlet blood appeared. She guffawed, for she was already drunk, and sucked on her thumb and swallowed the blood.

Next she’s rubbing banknotes on her naked body while sniffing choucroute and champagne. She’s an animal, unrestrained. Come morning though, as the train pulls into the small town of Bléville, “she had retrieved all of her customary self-assurance”.

In Bléville she claims to be a young widow, interested in buying a large property. She’s pretty and she has money. In no time at all she’s part of Bléville society such as it is. All the worse for Bléville.

Manchette’s work is always political. Aimée, as the woman now calls herself, is a predator disguising herself among the capitalist classes as one of their own. Is she really disguised though, or is she simply an example of their philosophy taken to an extreme? Aimée is buttoned-down, controlled and manipulative. When she’s not working though she’s an animal, her frenzy of unrestrained consumption punctuating her dispassionate search for more to consume.

Bléville is a tediously typical small French town with little to particularly recommend it. The town’s bourgois-elite guard their privileges closely, smugly comfortable and resentful of those just below them on the social ladder (who else do they have to fear after all other than those who could most readily take their place?).

The town’s rich take Aimée as one of their own. She blends in, attending their parties. In her spare time though she practices martial arts and prepares herself. She’s all business.

Lying in her hot bath, she opened the crime novel she had bought. She read ten pages. It took her six or seven minutes. She put the book down, masturbated, washed, and got out of the water. For a moment, in the bathroom mirror, she looked at her slim, seductive body. She dressed carefully; she aimed to please.

Aimée isn’t the only outsider. Baron Jules is a local, but outside the town’s rigid social heirarchy. He’s privileged by birth, but has no money. He detests the town’s old guard and he knows their secrets. He’s perfect for Aimée, who aims to bring chaos and to profit from the creative destruction that ensues. Baron Jules has never known how to strike back against the class he both belongs to and loathes. Aimée though, the perfect capitalist, can find profitable use for a man who spends his day trying to live outside of capitalism.

It’s not long before Aimée’s at the centre of the town’s tensions. As she observes to herself, it’s always the same (she’s done this before). “Sex always comes up first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes.”

Bléville has its old crimes, like everywhere else. One of those old crimes involves the local canned goods factory and a poisoning incident that led to the deaths of a “baby, two or three old people, along with thirty or so cows”. The incident was a major local scandal:

Many solid citizens pretended to be appalled; quite a few, out of stupidity, really were appalled.

Business, however, continued.

This is a blackly funny book. Aimée regularly passes a sign that exhorts the locals to “KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN!” It’s a case of be careful what you wish for, because Aimée’s passion for profit is going to wash right through and carry the town’s corruption with her. She is the logic of bourgois greed made hungry flesh.

This being Manchette it’s no spoiler to say that the final section of the book turns into a tightly-written bloodbath. Then again, how could it not? The locals can’t compromise with Aimée any more than an ailing company can compromise with a vulture fund that’s just bought up a majority holding of its stock. Aimée is liberating moribund assets so that they can be more productively deployed elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean the people currently holding those assets like it any.

I haven’t (couldn’t) read the French original, so I can’t of course say how faithful this translation is. It reads smoothly though and the sheer punch of the novel suggests that not too much has been lost crossing over into English. Certainly if I saw Nicholson-Smith’s name on the front of another book I’d count it as a positive. The NYRB edition also comes with an excellent afterword by Jean Echenoz, as I mentioned above. It sheds light on the text (not least that Bléville could be roughly translated as “Doughville”, making the town’s name a shout-out to Hammett), and is a very welcome addition. It’s also welcome to have it after the book, as opposed to Penguin who have a tendency to put essays up front even though they naturally tend to contain massive spoilers.

Guy Savage has reviewed Fatale, here, and has as ever some great insights – particularly on the politics. He’s also got a great quote regarding the town’s newspapers that I wish I’d thought to write down myself. I also found online a very interesting review from a blog I wasn’t previously familiar with, here, which is also good on the politics and on some of the background around the novel and Manchette himself.

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir

It was winter, and it was dark.

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.

The Prone Gunman

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The social relations of production

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

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Filed under Crime Fiction, French Literature, Manchette, Jean-Patrick, Noir