On April 29th, 1977, Jean-Patrick Manchette wrote in his diary that his editors at Gallimard’s famed Série Noire didn’t like Fatale (which was then titled La Belle Dame Sans Merci, after Keats’s poem of the same name), which prompted Manchette to request that it be published outside this legendary series of crime novels. He writes: “This negative response clearly shows what I should never forget: I alone (with Melissa [his wife, to whom Fatale is dedicated]) understand what I do.” The day after that he records a kind of statement of intention as an artist, reminding us just how much Manchette was a man of the Left, though his works could never truly be considered polemical. “I would prefer,” he writes, “to be contributing to the communist revolution. As of now I haven’t come up with a single thing to do for it. Thus my intention is solely to entertain, to distract.” Which doesn’t mean that politics doesn’t play a role in his novels.
By the time he published Fatale in 1977 (just out as a trade paperback from New York Review Books), Jean-Patrick Manchette was an established name in the world of le roman noir, crime novels with, for lack of a better word, an existential slant. They play with the purity of the American model with a wit and expansiveness that allows Manchette to draw from his interests in political philosophy and American jazz. It was as though Camus had met James M. Cain, dated for a few months and eventually, in a clinic on the outskirts of Paris and midwifed by Charles Mingus, produced a kind of hybrid genre, something edgy, slyly funny, and—a requirement for this kind of fiction—compellingly readable. (An interview with him on him—in French—can be found here.)
The crime novel was, for Manchette, “the great moral literature of our time.” His (for me) classic work, La Position du tireur couché (translated in the U.S. as The Prone Gunman), published three years after Fatale, is one I return to every few years. (Manchette’s other great work, Le Petit bleu de la côte ouest, translated in the U.S. as Three to Kill, appeared just before Fatale). Its wintry opening, with a chill wind pouring down from the Arctic, crossing Ireland, sweeping through Liverpool, passing across Cheshire and finally meeting the unblinking eyes of Martin Terrier, hitman on the verge of retirement, an old soul ready to walk away from the smell of gunpowder and the corpse twitching at his feet, never fails to get to me. It’s a smart, cinematic opening, and the story that follows, of a man drawn unwillingly into one last contract killing, is as immediate as when I first read it eight or nine years ago.
Born in Marseille in 1942, dying far too early of lung cancer in 1995, Jean-Patrick Manchette was also a screenwriter, working with, most notably, Claude Chabrol, adapting both his own work and those of others (Fatale was adapted but has not yet been filmed). He was fortunate enough to be part of the Série Noire line of books, slim black paperbacks devoted to tales of crime and the underworld. With their muted covers and back-cover cigarette ads, they were cheap, everyone read them, and now and again you can see a character engrossed in one in a film by Godard, Rohmer or Truffaut. They signaled not a lack of education or a dumbing-down of French readership, but instead a refinement of taste; the polar or detective novel, as with the roman noir, is a respected genre in France, mostly due to Georges Simenon. And the French, of course, love certain aspects of American culture. Jerry Lewis will do for some; while crime fiction and cinema will serve very nicely for many more. Then there’s jazz, which Jean-Patrick Manchette—who played saxophone—loved almost more than the movies. His erudite references to American musicians in his novels raise a smile with the reader who knows that Henry Threadgill and Ornette Coleman are more than just a couple of alto sax players.
Fatale, however, was somewhat sui generis to his other works, and though its main character is an assassin, there is a more pointed political edge to this novel, an attempt “to show both the ideological degradation of Marxism at the end of the 19th Century as well as the decadence of Flaubert’s style at the same time,” as he writes in his journal, setting the novel, significantly, in Flaubert’s Normandy. Yet Fatale is on the surface a tale of a murderess thrust into the society of the provincial bourgeoisie and nobility: small-minded vulgar men and their bridge-playing wives, drawn with all the contempt of a Robespierre sitting at his desk in the Rue Saint-Honoré one sizzling Thermidorian night and drawing up a list of heads to remove. It begins, as novels such as this do, with a murder. As is Manchette’s custom, nothing is explained, all is fact; we don’t really know his protagonists: their inner lives remain a mystery. There’s a purity in this approach that brings it close to true American pulp fiction, yet there’s a sensibility that, perhaps because it is Gallic, is slyly ironic. Manchette doesn’t go in for the smart postmodernism of an Echenoz when he plays with genre, nor the genre-bending fiction of René Belletto. He never pretends that his work could be anything but what it is, never feeling compelled to “lift” his work into some amorphous category of “literary fiction,” though of course the political and moral dimension is never far from the surface.
Though we begin with a hunting party filled with overfed Frenchmen—are they hunting someone or merely trying to bag that night’s supper?—that we expect might lead us into a story in which they feature, we only realize a page or two later that our business with these portly bird killers is over; that one of them will wander off from his party to catch his breath and consider the pleasures of cigarette-smoking, a castoff habit ruefully recalled, while a young woman he recognizes from the day before wanders into the woods and empties both barrels of her shotgun into him.
We next see her in a sleeping car headed for Normandy and the town of Bléville, Blé meaning, as Jean Echenoz points out in his astute afterword, wheat or the dough that’s made from it. This is a town rolling in it, just as our heroine has literally rolled in heaps of franc notes, naked in her sleeping-car compartment: payment for having knocked off the fat guy fantasizing over a smoke. Changing her hair-color and her identity, she’ll now be known as Aimée Joubert, a young widow, eager to settle down to a quiet life, willing to meet new people and make new friends. In Bléville, “it was the rich that interested her, and she went only where there was money.” Small-town society, the commercial wealth of the provinces, is in for a very big surprise. “Aimée’s life was well ordered and well filled. She took tea in the morning, lunched on grilled meat at the Grand Café de l’Anglais, and had eggs or soup for dinner.” How casually Manchette drops the notion that even while dining she is adhering to the expectations and prejudices of her next victims. She becomes one of them; infiltration is all. What they don’t know is that twice a week she works on “her martial-arts skills at the Jules Ferry Center, a place where the elite were never to be seen. (She familiarized herself with the nunchaku, a weapon hitherto unknown to her.)”
We are very close not just, nearly thirty years earlier, to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but also to the landscape of “Kill Bill.” Like Lisbeth Salander, Aimée can change her appearance and her demeanor as well as her identity; like a chameleon she blends in with whatever society she is intent on infiltrating. But our heroine is, in fact, as pure a serial killer as one can be. Unlike Salander, whose fury is fueled by memory and abuse, Aimée targets the corrupt, the people who’ve skimmed rewards off the backs of the less-fortunate. She feels nothing for these anonymous profiteers, and the only thing that seems to excite her is the taking of money; precisely what arouses her victims. She finds it as she travels from one town to the next, insinuating herself into society, identifying, as she says, “one fat real asshole who wants to kill another.” She offers her services, and the job is done. Ka-ching!
KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN! a sign implores as one enters Bléville, though—especially if one has seen enough Chabrol—it’s a town sullied by scandal and corruption. There she meets the impoverished Baron Jules, whom she maneuvers into creating chaos through innuendo and suspicion, sparing her, if only for a moment, of having to load a double-barreled hunting rifle and dealing with it herself. What happens when she unloads her weapon on him is both horrifying and comic. Though there’s a lot of blood, the hit wasn’t as clean as she would have liked it. That’s when she realizes she could never have killed a man like him.
“It’s strange that I missed you,” she observed. “That has never happened to me before.”
“You mean you’ve killed a lot of people?”
“Seven,” said Aimée.
“I was sure there was something,” said the Baron. “I never thought of that. But I was sure you were special.”
“Without counting my husband,” added Aimée.
At which point he proceeds to die. As in many post-war fictions and films, this is a story that lies in the long shadow cast by the years of the German Occupation, when too many loyal French citizens collaborated with the Nazis, profited from the circumstances, and spent their hours busily denouncing Jews and black-marketers. Such behavior, some filmmakers and writers seem to conclude, are innate to the national character. This hypocrisy is what interests Jean-Patrick Manchette, for it also exposes the problems of class, a question of the exploiters and the exploited. Fatale is, at heart, a tale of corruption, about the links between wealth and death, and how greed and the accumulation of cold hard cash somehow kicks to the curb a natural reverence for life, what the American Right derides as empathy. Compared to The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill, whose length allows for greater character development and more elaborate setpieces, this is a slighter work, and Manchette sometimes resorts to shorthand to keep things moving (“The commissioner asked her in a low voice to summarize the situation more clearly than she had done up to now. She summarized.”).
Yet it’s no less a subversive work than the others. Manchette, as has already been mentioned, loved jazz, and especially what was known in the Sixties as the “New Thing”—music that broke boundaries and allowed for improvisation that ranged far beyond the chord changes and melodic strictures of a tune until a kind of anarchy was reached, a natural reflection of the anger and the revolt of the politics of the times. Yet it was played for the most part on the same instruments that gave us Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” or Brubeck’s “Take Five.” In the same way, Manchette was really the first noiriste to lend the peculiarities of the genre a moral and political dimension without once sacrificing the expectations of the traditional roman noir. Which is not to say that his books lack humor. He can raise a smile and often a laugh at the most unexpected of times. In the midst of the final setpiece in Fatale—bloodbath would be a better term—we come upon this very characteristic Manchettism: “In the darkness the young woman was not visible. Had she been visible, she would not have been beautiful to behold; or perhaps she would have been beautiful to behold, depending on one’s taste.” Because the author has second-guessed us we laugh along with him. The sense of irony throughout much of Manchette’s work is similar to what Ian Fleming did with 007. Both Bond and Aimée Joubert seem to enjoy playing with the frames of their own genres, stepping close to the edges, as though providing a running commentary to the story we’re reading.
New York Review Books is to be congratulated for bringing out a novel that in its brevity—it comes in under a hundred pages—seems just enough for this story. With an astute afterword by Jean Echenoz and a cover photo—like a still from a film noir—by Neil Krug, special mention must be made to Donald Nicholson-Smith for a faithful and idiomatic translation that respects both Manchette’s deadpan delivery and his subtle humor. It’s a book that might have come to be seen as just another thinly-plotted thriller, but which reveals itself to be a good deal more.