Three noir novels by Manchette
Abandon all hope,
The French gave us the term noir to characterize a certain type of crime novel or film in which (to quote the hapless hitch-hiker Al Roberts in the 1945 film Detour), “Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you up.” So it’s only fitting that they should try their hand at writing them.
Jean-Patrick Manchette, who before his death in 1995 left us ten short novels (three of which are now available in English translations), was a master at the art. Rather than embrace the cool classicism of Georges Simenon, who might be said to have represented the “cinema of quality” tradition in the French crime novel, Manchette became its Nouvelle Vague enfant terrible, writing short, jazzy, ultra-violent thrillers. He brings back the tradition of the pulp novel that’s less than 150 pages in length and luxuriates in few plot diversions.
Manchette has been compared by some to the French film director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973), who was known for his tragic, minimalist film noir crime dramas. But this is a claim I find difficult to support: Melville’s characters always operated in a moral world, bound by rigid codes of honor.
Manchette is closer to the director Luc Besson (Subway, Nikita), in that his world is much more chaotic, and moral codes don’t count for very much. In Manchette’s Three to Kill (1976), there is no real rational reason for an exiled Caribbean strongman to order the killing of a bystander to an assassination that he ordered. The bystander couldn’t possibly have identified the killers, and even if he could have, that ID still wouldn’t have led the police to the reclusive “Colonel Taylor,” living in retirement on a walled estate. No, the memoir-writing, classical-music-loving thug was just playing it safe.
But what a bloodbath ensues before the thug’s paid killers, his beloved guard-dog and finally the thug himself fall victim to one pissed-off electronics salesman, who prefers jazz to Classical.
The Prone Gunman (1981) is a tale of a political assassination gone bad and the resultant fall-out. Manchette was stretching a bit here, trying to write a novel that addresses the tangled morality of the modern world, in which a simple assassin can possess more of a moral sense than the government officials who employ him.
Fatale (1977) is my favorite of the three Manchettes that I’ve read. From the tense opening in which a hunter, encountering a lone young woman in the forest, has the tables turned on him when she neatly drills him, to an over-the-top finale in which half the citizenry of a picture-perfect but corrupt-as-hell seaside resort engage in a midnight manhunt to find the lethal femme before she finds them, this one moves like an express train. Frankly, I’m astonished that it hasn’t been made into a movie.
As in The Prone Gunman, one comes away from Fatale with the sense that the assassin, a simple professional in a messy business, is hardly a match for the smiling villains who hire folks like her to do their killing for them.