Three to Kill
Translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith
City Lights, $11.95 (paper)
The Prone Gunman
Translated from the French by James Brook
City Lights, $11.95 (paper)
An ordinary businessman witnesses a murder and is drawn into a web of violent intrigue; a hit man who wants out of the game finds that retiring isn’t quite as easy as saying “I quit.” These are classic thriller plotlines, recycled time and again to what is often yawningly predictable effect. The average Joe discovers a resourcefulness he never knew he had and foils the bad guys; the killer settles a few scores on his way out the door or dies trying.
Take these scenarios and put them in the hands of a Frenchman with leftist sympathies, an attachment to the Situationist philosophy of Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle), and an enthusiast’s familiarity with Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, and the results are something else altogether. Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942–1995) called crime novels “the great moral literature of our time”; while American noirists tracked the corruption of individual souls in the asphalt jungle, Manchette and other French writers seized on the genre as a means of attacking the system that created that jungle in the first place. While there isn’t much that’s obviously moral—in the good-versus-evil sense—about these two novels, they demonstrate why Manchette is hailed as the man who kicked the French crime novel or “polar” out of the apolitical torpor into which it had fallen by the time he started publishing his “neo-polars” in the 1970s. (“Polar” is a slangy truncation of “policier,” as in “roman policier” or detective novel.)
Peter Marshall, in his 1992 book Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, describes the Situationist world view that influenced Manchette: Situationists “argued that capitalism had turned all relationships transactional, and that life had been reduced to a ‘spectacle ’ ” in which workers had become mere consumers. To combat this the Situationists “tried to construct situations which disrupt the ordinary and normal in order to jolt people out of their customary ways of thinking and acting. In place of petrified life, they sought the derive (with its flow of acts and encounters) and detournement (rerouting events and images). They supported vandalism, wildcat strikes and sabotage as a way of destroying the manufactured spectacle and commodity economy.”
A member of the radical generation of ’68, Manchette worked closely with the left in France (according to his biographer, Jean-Francois Gerault, he served as an activist in the UNEF and then in a Marxist-Leninist cell) and fell under the influence of Debord and Situationism. Manchette’s “neo-polars” push the Situationist strategy of derive and detournement to the point of comic absurdity, throwing a wrench into the workings of their main characters’ lives and gleefully recording the anarchy that results. At the same time, they critique the system that has reduced these people to units of production.
Between 1971 and 1982 Manchette wrote ten of these neo-polars for Gallimard’s “Serie Noire.” Three to Kill appeared in 1976 under the title Le Petit bleu de la cote ouest. It begins with Georges Gerfaut, the protagonist—let’s not use the word hero—speeding along Paris’s ring road in his luxury car, hepped up on Four Roses bourbon, barbiturates, and West Coast–style jazz. “The combined effect on him has not been drowsiness but a tense euphoria that threatens 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. . . . It is two-thirty or maybe three-fifteen in the morning.”
What brought Georges to this? “The reason why Georges is barreling 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.”
Manchette’s teasing here, but he’s also deadly serious. He doesn’t belong to the “Murder is my business!” school of crime writing; he’d be more likely to say that business is murder. In Georges’s case, murder entered his life on his way back from a business trip, appropriately enough, during which he made a killing. En route home, he comes across what appears to be the scene of an accident; he takes the victim to a hospital only out of fear that he’ll be prosecuted if he doesn’t help. But, Georges learns, no good deed goes unpunished: it turns out that the “accident” was a hit ordered by a retired Dominican strongman and the hired killers—a pair as vicious as they are inept—aren’t too pleased that Georges has mucked around in their affairs. (The victim dies despite Georges’s intervention, but that’s beside the point.)
This kicks off a serious derangement of Georges’s affairs—Situationism in action—as Manchette sets about sabotaging his protagonist’s comfy, empty life. Soon enough the hitmen are after Georges, going so far as to track him to the seaside town where he’s taking his summer vacation with his wife, Bea, a PR flak and “a superb and horrible mare of a woman,” and their two daughters, referred to only as “the little girls” (which indicates how much value Manchette places on bourgeois family life). Discovering some primal urge to survive, Georges fights the killers off—they have the nerve to attack him when he’s taking a swim—and rather happily goes on the lam, not just from the killers but from the well-heeled pointlessness of his life.
After a series of escapes and misadventures that includes being beaten and thrown off a train—an aggressive demonstration ofderive and detournement—Georges winds up stranded in picturesque alpine terrain, a situation that Manchette describes with typical wryness: “From an aesthetic point of view, the landscape was highly romantic. From Gerfaut’s point of view, it was absolute shit.” A kindly old man takes him in and teaches him how to shoot a gun—a skill that will come in handy—then dies, leaving behind a lissome granddaughter, Alphonsine, with whom Georges has a torrid but meaningless affair. “I don’t love you, you know,” he tells Alphonsine. “You are very beautiful but a distinctly average person. I find you highly desirable.” The bourgeois machinery of Georges’s existence has been brought to a standstill, and yet he still lives according to “the social relations of production,” treating relationships as commodities; he rates Alphonsine the way he might any other consumer good. The idyll, such as it is, doesn’t last, and Georges turns into a killing machine in order to settle scores. Several people and a dog die painful deaths at his hands; a certain raw justice is dispensed.
Do the carnage and the struggle to survive change our bourgeois non-hero? “Once, in a dubious context, he lived through an exciting and bloody adventure; after which, all he could think of to do was to return to the fold. And now, in the fold, he waits. If at this moment, without leaving the fold, George is racing around Paris at 145 kilometers per hour, this proves nothing beyond the fact that Georges is of his time. And his space.”
This is cold-blooded stuff, and it leaves you feeling a certain chill. For a reader of American noir, accustomed to loners and antiheroes who pulse with life despite their flaws (think Philip Marlowe, drowning a tender and wounded soul in booze and wisecracks), it can be off-putting. Georges Gerfault’s fortunes are deliberately a matter of intellectual rather than emotional interest. Manchette does not want you to feel attached to his protagonist; he offers Georges up as a specimen, and therein lies the peculiarly intellectual pleasure of reading these neo-polars. You’re being asked to study rather than feel empathy for the characters’ fates.
Despite his best efforts to the contrary, Manchette can’t quite contain the humanity of Martin Terrier, the title character of The Prone Gunman (published by Gallimard in 1981 as La position du tireur couche). Martin comes at violence from the other side: it ishis business. After a stint as a mercenary in Africa, Martin works as a contract killer for a CIA-like outfit known only as “the company” (another parodic thrust at the genre). The book’s title refers to Martin’s preferred firing position, but it also indicates an existential helplessness one wouldn’t expect in a man in his line of work. Martin’s an idealist, and not a very smart one. His plan has been to salt away enough money to retire, go back to the town where he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks—his father was a brain-damaged, alcoholic waiter—and claim his high-school sweetheart, Anne, who in an impetuous moment promised to wait ten years for him. He aims to settle some class scores in the process, fulfilling the vow he made when he hit the road: “I will return, I will kill them, I will drag them through the shit, I will make them eat shit.”
As the book opens, the decade’s over, and Martin Terrier, as dogged as his surname suggests, is preparing to execute his plan after making a hit in England. The company, however, doesn’t much like the idea, and as soon as Martin gets back to Paris, they—or someone—makes his life a living hell. They murder in gruesome style the woman he’s been sleeping with, his cat, and possibly his financial adviser (it might be suicide, but the effect is ruinously the same on Martin’s bank account).
This sounds like the recipe for a hard-boiled vendetta, but Manchette turns Martin’s revenge into black comedy, a fool’s errand. The gunman makes it home only to discover that Anne has married the “right” man and turned into a bored, Cognac-swilling nymphomaniac with zero interest in being whisked away by an obsessed ex-lover with postcard notions of romance. “What I had in mind,” Martin tells her, “at the beginning—I mean, before things went to hell . . . was a rather primitive country, with a good climate, a weak currency, and easygoing relations between people.” “That sort of thing exists, then?” Anne asks, mocking him. He can’t whisk her away; he can’t even perform in bed anymore, as she discovers during bored, inebriated attempts to seduce him. (Like most members of a capitalist society, she’s got nothing better to do than consume pleasure wherever she can find it. True feeling’s beside the point.)
Martin’s handler mocks his dream, too: “You’re stupid . . . you’re an idiot. I wouldn’t make a move from here or any other place where I happened to be, because there’s not one place that’s any different from any other anymore, except for the communist countries, which are worse. There’s no place good anymore, don’t you understand?” To which Martin, the simple-minded romantic, replies, “I want to go the South Sea Islands.” The system that Martin so desperately wants to escape has corrupted everything, everyone, and everywhere; there is no escape, as Martin will discover.
The company kidnaps Martin and Anne, who promptly screws one of their captors, finishing off the true-love plotline. Broke and emotionally traumatized to the point where he can no longer speak, Martin agrees to one last hit. Much carnage ensues, described in Manchette’s trademark deadpan style: “The 9mm bullet sent up a spray of pine splinters two meters from Terrier, who thereupon let loose with fourteen rounds at the short guy, who was busy throwing himself on his belly. Since Terrier was aiming at his legs, the short guy was almost cut in two lengthwise by the 7.62mm bullets. . . . [His] corpse was bleeding all over. He had pieces of his brains in his ear and between his teeth.” Two pages later, Martin’s best (only) friend is shredded by a landmine on which he’s been forced to stand, leaving a “red-and-white thoracic cage” behind on which Martin nearly steps.
More bullets fly, and bodies pile up to the point of absurdity. In the big showdown scene between Martin and his treacherous employers, Martin takes two bullets, and even then Manchette’s having fun: “‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’” screams the guy in charge.“‘No one do anything! Please!’ No one did anything.” Martin manages to get through it alive, too stubborn and stupid to die. He pulls through, discovers he can no longer kill, writes a fabricated memoir to be used by the company (which in turn kills the book “on the grounds that it was perfectly ridiculous”) and is turned loose.
This sounds like a happy ending, but the irony is that Martin has been cut loose in every sense—downsized as a worker and as a man. He can’t do anything else; he’s impotent, useless, obsolete, a figure of fun even to the reader.
Grim and cerebral as they feel, it’s remarkable how comic—in an absurdist, laugh-or-you’ll-cry way—these books are, as if Manchette had decided that poking fun at the products of the capitalist system were the fittest way to attack the system itself. An American noir writer might be tempted to turn these characters into existentially tragic figures, ennobled in extremis, but Manchette refuses every opportunity to do this.
So Martin winds up living “a new life under a new identity in the French Ardennes” with Anne. No happily ever after for these two: she soon tires “of an existence entirely lacking in adventure—not to mention money, for Martin Terrier, under his new identity and with his current abilities, could find work only in the restaurant business.” He barely recovers his ability to function in bed, but it’s not enough to keep Anne satisfied: “She also grew tired of three-minute coitus, or so we may surmise. In any case, she left suddenly and without explanation.” Martin’s stuck in a small apartment, waiting tables in a clumsy, just-competent way, blabbering in his sleep, except on certain rare nights:
And sometimes this happens: it’s winter, and it’s dark. Coming down directly from the Arctic, a freezing wind rushes into the Irish Sea, sweeps through Liverpool, races across the Cheshire plain (where the cats lower their trembling ears as it howls and passes over); this freezing wind crosses England and the Straits of Dover; it traverses gray plains and comes knocking directly on the windowpanes of Martin Terrier’s small apartment, but these windowpanes do not vibrate, and this wind has no force. On such nights, Terrier sleeps quietly. In his sleep, he has just assumed the prone firing position.
Are you feeling ever-so-slightly bad for Martin Terrier, useless now that he’s no longer a killing machine? Do you pity Georges Gerfaut, speeding around Paris in the grip of a vague existential angst that he lacks the imagination to do anything about? Manchette would probably shrug and laugh and quote one of his own characters: “No, seriously, it’s frivolity on one side and boredom on the other, and I say fuck it. Of course, I’m well aware that these are aspects of the same crisis. Don’t you agree?”