If, like us, Jean-Patrick Manchette is new to you, a primer: French crime novelist, wrote 10 novels across the 70s and the 80s, left leaning social critic, deep thinker, esteemed as the foremost crime writer of his day in France (and we say that knowing that, for some people, foremost and crime writer almost contradict one another). Serpent’s Tail (who used to be the publishing equivalent of Factory records and are, these days, the publishing equivalent of London records) have reissued a couple of his classics – one of which, The Gunman (formerly The Prone Gunman, from the French La Position du tireur couché) has been made into a movie starring Sean Penn (a movie that seems to have been graced with reviews that centre on the age of Penn himself – the character of Martin Terrier he plays in his thirties in the novel). Other things to know about Manchette are that he wasn’t averse to the odd comic (was a big fan of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, for instance, which he translated into French) and that comics in return have a lot of time for Manchette, with Jacques Tardi working his way through Manchette’s back catalogue, publishing graphic versions of Le Petit Bleu (as West Coast Blues), the forementioned La Position… (as Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot) and Ô Dingos! Ô Châteaux! (as Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell).
As someone new to Manchette, Fatale and The Gunman are an interesting pairing. They are similar in some ways. In each, a central protagonist commits a crime and then returns home (in a sense). In each, they become embroiled in an unexpected bit of intrigue. In each, everything pretty much goes to hell in a handcart. Fatale comes with an intro from David Peace (an intro, it should be said, that if I were Serpent’s Tail, I would have been a bit put out by: seven pages of which a good six pages are quotes from Manchette himself) that helps position Manchette as the kind of deeply political writer Peace is himself – but if you’re one of the apparent legions of people who don’t give a stuff, you shouldn’t let that put you off. The fatale in question is Aimée Joubert (or at least Joubert is the name she chooses to take here, she’s a slippery fish and no mistaking), a woman who “might have been thirty or thirty five [with] dark brown eyes and delicate features [whose] bare smile exposed her teeth, which were small and even”. Léa Seydoux could play her if they ever make the film. We first meet her executing a hunter, a hunter who appears to know her, or know her latest guise, before she dispatches him.
We follow her as she travels by train (losing herself, temporarily, as she transforms her hair colour and debauches on food and drinks) to a place called Bléville (by which time she “had retrieved all of her customary self-control”). What follows is Manchette’s twist on Sanjuro: she takes in the lay of the land, sees that various rich sorts are up to no good to further their own greedy ends and starts to play off one against the other. Unlike Sanjuro, however, Joubert becomes somewhat emotionally involved in proceedings, and that, as you might expect, proves her undoing in some senses, but for all that Joubert is the kind of heroine it’s easy to root for in an age where people think only of themselves and what they can get. If there’s a criticism, it’s a subtle one: there are times when Fatale recalls GK Chesterton’s masterful The Man Who Was Thursday and at that times it feels momentarily dated; there’s also something about literary convention, in that, would Joubert do any of this if she was a real flesh and blood person? Probably not. The narrative of the novel is driven by the fact that a novel needs a narrative rather than by imperatives of character. But it’s the kind of point that only really raises its head as you, the reader, raise your head – when you’re in the book, you’re in the book, and it moves along, at pace. It’s fair to say: you are swept along with it.
For this reader, The Gunman is much better (possibly because it is in some ways more straightforward and more conventional). We first meet Martin Terrier, also known as Christian, parked in a Bedford van in Worcester, of all places, on a job. There is a suave two page pursuit and
“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.”
A redhead who turns to see Dubofsky’s head “split open, full of holes, and shattered like the shell of a hard-boiled egg”, is also done away with (a “silencer against the girl’s heart”, “the girl flew back, her intestines emptying noisily”). Terrier returns home, intent on quitting the profession and returning to the great love of his life to whom he made a promise some ten years previous. Of course, someone (possibly his employers, possibly some former aggrieved family member) isn’t prepared to let him disappear into the night and so before you know it, Terrier is taking on all comers. The combination of a lost love and the fact that we don’t know precisely who has the biggest problem with Terrier make this a ferociously tight 150 page novel. Terrier is flawed, which means that he isn’t your cardboard cut-out action hero, he makes bad choices, he takes wrong turns, he doesn’t always get things right. And, of course, Manchette has quite the way with playing the reader’s expectations, both in terms of wringing every drop from possible outcomes but also in terms of generating serious ennui at the book’s climax. Hey, the guy is French, what else should we expect?
To come back to the earlier point about Serpent’s Tail, these Manchette reissues are the kinds of ‘cool’ (quote/unquote) books that they used to publish in spades back in the heady days of their youth, and they demonstrate that someone there is keeping the flame alive.
Any Cop?: Manchette feels like a find to us (in our ignorance), and we’ll be hunting down both the Fantagraphic adaptations by Tardi and anything else we can find in translation. We’d advise you to do the same.