by Jean-Patrick Manchette
Spectacle of Society
A review by Gerry Donaghy
The building that I'm writing this review in is called the City of Books. It houses over a million volumes in over 68,000 square feet of retail space, and while I haven't heard of a recent measurement, at last count, there was around 12 linear miles of shelves displaying all of these books.
In this enormity of space and books, nestled quietly on a shelf slightly above eye-level in the Gold Room (where we feature mysteries and thrillers, among other genres), there's a writer whose English-language offerings take up less than an inch-and-a-half of shelf space. Three slim volumes that can be easily overlooked in a search for more commercial authors shelved nearby.
However, if you were to pause for a moment and examine these unassuming volumes, you would discover a writer whose name is not frequently spoken beyond the dedicated readers of noir fiction: Jean-Patrick Manchette. I freely admit that less than a year ago, I couldn't have told you who he was, as I'm not one of the aforementioned devotees of crime fiction (I quite like it, but I am not obsessive about it). But, now that I've read the entirety of his work that's available in English (which took a total of about four hours), I can safely say that if there is a cult of Manchette, I'll be first in line for the Flavor-Aid.
Fatale is the third work of Manchette's to be translated into English, and its simple, direct title at once says it all and allows your mind to fill in the blanks. A savvy reader will fill in the missing first word of the title (femme), and, upon opening the book, will find the anti-heroine dispatching the leader of a hunting party, killing him before the end of page three. From there she'll board a train, change her identity, and set up shop in a small rural town full of self-important big fish living on a steady diet of foie gras and hubris. For somebody with her indefatigable patience and amorality, this town offers easy pickings as she sets up the various corrupt members of the local high society against each other.
Manchette's novels are short, sharp shocks to the reader, with spartan prose that is so hard and tight you can bounce a Kennedy half-dollar off of it. The opening massacre in Fatale begins with:
"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 Hemmingway-esque prose style is even leaner than that of Manchette's American antecedents like James M. Cain or Dashiell Hammett (whose Continental Op bears more than a passing resemblance to the central character of Fatale), and quickly propels the reader to a conclusion where the body count flies off the Richter Scale in terms of how many people can be garroted, shot, and knifed in a single scene.
Much has been made of Manchette's leftist sympathies, and, indeed, the jacket copy of this edition of Fatale states that he "pushes Situationist strategy of derive and detournement to the point of comic absurdity." It's an easy case to make, as Manchette uses the genre of the crime thriller to make a pointed critique of capitalism, turning the pillars of the community into the true villains of the work. A reader may be forced into such moral relativism as to question who is more evil, this woman who kills for money or the bourgeoisie who appear to be poisoning an entire community? "They can be killed," the femme fatale says. "The real assholes can be killed. Anyway, I needed money but I didn't want to work....Mind you, this is work, what I do."
That being said, for readers who don't mind a dash of dialectical materialism in their crime thrillers, Fatale provides a ripping tale told at a breakneck speed. Even readers who don't cotton to smarty-pants Frenchmen who dare to besmirch laissez-faire capitalism will find much to enjoy in Manchette's hit-and-run prose style.