‘THE GREAT MORAL LITERATURE OF OUR TIME’: PART I
The case of Jean-Patrick Manchette
A bald man, over fifty, in a camouflage cap, with a potbelly, a ruddy complexion, and white hairs in his nose, breaks off from his hunting party one day and descends into a narrow valley in the woods. He hears a shot, and then he sees a slender young woman he knows as Mélanie Horst approach him, with a shotgun slung over her shoulder. He’s pleased to see her: he’d thought she’d left town on a train the day before. “‘As surprises go, this beats all. And such a pleasant one too,’ he exclaimed, and she unslung her 16-gauge shotgun, turned it on him, and before he had finished smiling emptied both barrels into his gut.” This is the opening scene of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 1977 novel Fatale. The killing is reported in the news as a hunting accident, the perpetrator “not only inept but as yet unknown.” The killer collects the clips of her killings.
In his introduction to The Mad and the Bad, Manchette’s second novel, from 1972, James Sallis writes: “Manchette wanted to throw in rocks, disturb the calm surface, bring up all the muck beneath—to demonstrate that the crime novel could be (as he said again and again) ‘the great moral literature of our time.’” For Sallis this means “facing society’s failures head on” and allowing us to “witness society’s true engines—greed and violence—grinding away.” It’s a good way to describe Manchette’s novels, but I’d categorize violence in these books as a byproduct of greed (most of the time) rather than a fellow engine. It is also often said that Manchette remade the crime novel in France, turning it away from the police procedural and detective stories (think of Georges Simenon’s hero Maigret), imbuing it with left politics, and blowing up any notion of formula.
What is it that could make crime novels superior to other novels as “moral literature”? The simple answer is that characters in crime novels are pushed to extremes. In a work of domestic fiction, characters face temptations and sometimes succumb to them. Perhaps they lie, commit adultery, abuse alcohol or drugs or each other, damage or destroy property, hurt each other’s feelings, abandon each other (I am thinking of Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen but any example would do). Laws may be broken but the guns don’t necessarily come out. In a Manchette novel, the guns are out on the first or second page. Guns make people do things that are beyond their regular moral habits.
The heroine of Fatale is an entrepreneur of murder. Her method is to go from one town to another, to assume a new identity (she is called Aimée for most of the novel), to move among a town’s elite (the rich who are also always rotten) and study them, to learn who hates whom, to offer killing as a service, implying that she knows people who can get it done. Her work has comprised seven murders. She hit on her profession after stabbing her husband to death and getting off by telling the authorities he fell on the knife by accident. He had beaten her for seven years, so we can reckon this as self-defense of a sort. And the men she kills are as lousy as those who pay for their killings. Her method backfires when it brings her to kill an innocent man.
Amée gives money to her mother, whom she hates. When she tells her mother she hates her it’s unclear whether her mother can hear what she says because she doesn’t have her hearing aid in. If she doesn’t hate her father, she at least avoids him. It is reasonable to hate your father for all sorts of reasons, but to hate your elderly deaf mother is something else.
“You are a terrifyingly negative and beautiful person,” the innocent man, an impecunious baron, says to Aimée.
The proper plot of Fatale is set off by a dead baby. Aimée is not the murderer. The cause of death is food poisoning.
After she kills the hunter, we see Aimée on a train drinking champagne, eating a feast, and rubbing the money she’s earned on her belly. The scene recalls the naked woman rolling in stolen bank notes in Elliot Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel, perhaps the darkest of American noir novels and a perfect one.
Aimée is a cynical operator in the work of murder. Her undoing comes when her cynicism reaches its limit and the logic of her blackmail scheme pushes her to a murder she cannot bring herself to commit. Yet she fires the shot anyway, resulting in a slow painful death for the baron. Aimée’s crisis of conscience leads to several more deaths. Manchette’s novels are various in their design, but there is always a bloodbath in the offing.
Strangely, Fatale is one of Manchette’s novels that hasn’t been adapted for the screen. One can imagine a Hollywood version with someone like Charlize Theron in the lead. No doubt the wrong kind of cynicism would prevail.
The Prone Gunman, the last novel Manchette published in his lifetime, in 1981, fourteen years before his death from cancer, was adapted in 2015 by the French director Pierre Morel, who made Taken, as a vehicle for Sean Penn. The film is watchable—I first watched it on a plane—and suitably violent, but in relation to its source it is a bastardization. Martin Terrier, the gunman of the title, is a killer for hire who has fallen afoul of his former bosses. In the novel, he simply wants to be done with the business of assassination for hire, collect his savings, return to his hometown, and marry his high school sweetheart. He is not political, his lover betrays him, and he ends up a cripple, like his father, a bullet lodged in his brain. He is too simple a man, too much like a mangy and simple-minded dog, if a sympathetic creature, to be played by Sean Penn. The Martin of the movie is a reformed killer and a kind of NGO superman, helping out here and there while on the lam in Africa. He too returns to his lost love, who does not betray him. The revenge he takes on his former employers on his former employers, a corporate mercenary firm led by Mark Rylance, is a little victory for liberalism, rooting out corruption in the foreign aid sector. Interpol, represented by Idris Elba, even lends a hand.
The violence in Manchette’s novels is spectacular and rendered with exquisite precision. The physics of firearms and their effects on human anatomy are the objects of Manchette’s painstakings. Nobody is ever merely shot. There is always a flourish of ballistic lyricism. Here is the murder of the hero’s lover in Three to Kill (1976), in Donald Nicholson-Smith’s translation:
Then the right side of Alphonsine’s torso was ripped open. As though kicked by a horse, she was hurled sideways, and a glob of crushed bone pulped flesh, fragments of bronchial tubes, atomized blood, and compressed—along with the dumdum bullet driving this mass before it—broke explosively from her back. Gerfaut’s hands were still outstretched, and he was astonished to find that Alphonsine’s black hair was no longer between his fingers. The young woman’s shoulder struck the ground just as Gerfaut heard the sound of the departing shot from over to his right.
Sex is a variable element, not always an active ingredient, though when it happens it tends to be expressive of character. In his introduction to The N’Gustro Affair, Manchette’s first novel (Laissez bronzer les Cadavres, co-authored with Jean-Pierre Bastid and as yet untranslated to English, appeared the same year, 1971), Gary Indiana calls the sexual exploits of Henri Butron—the creep and patsy who narrates his life story in a tape recorder before being knocked off, as we witness in the novel’s opening scene—“mildewy,” and the word is just right. Everything about him stinks. The only sex in Fatale, it’s implied, is masturbation: Aimée rejects two men who make passes at her. She is too beautiful and negative for anyone to love. Alphonsine and Gerfaut are in the throes of an extended bucolic ecstasy of rutting before she’s killed. Their coupling happens by chance after the death of her grandfather, who was tending to Gerfaut following his escape from contract killers who came after him because he came to the aid of their real target: his whole predicament is a matter of chance. When Eugene Tarpon, the former gendarme and down-at-the-heels private detective who narrates No Room at the Morgue (1973) and Que d’os! (1976; soon to be translated to English, I’m told) at last finds something like love it reads as a reward for his labors in catching a killer (Morgue) and exposing a conspiracy of corrupt heroin-peddling cops (Que d’os), but he is too broken and hospital-bound to enjoy it: “Perhaps,” he says, “we’ll go to bed together once my casts have been taken off.”
To be continued . . .