The Real Cool Killers

Fatale (New York Review Books Classics) BY Jean-Patrick Manchette. edited by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Jean Echenoz. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 112 pages. $12.

The cover of Fatale (New York Review Books Classics)

Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, Detour, D.O.A.—through titles and across content, classic noir semaphores repetition, impasse, entanglement, and terminus. The elegantly brutal, deadpan crime fictions of Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942–1995), created in the reverberation of the events of May 1968 in Paris, exploded those distress signals into static and silence. A socialist from Marseille who began drifting around dissident Communist and Trotskyite fringes, the translator of American hard-boiled novels and the author of Notes noires columns for French newspapers and journals, Manchette crafted a sly rendition of Situationist détournement: a collage of redux plots that emerges as simultaneously a refinement and a travesty of noir. Despite American anomalies such as Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, and James Ellroy, European writers have often proved savvier than their stateside counterparts at folding crime inside a radical social critique. For Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Henning Mankell, Carlo Lucarelli, and even Stieg Larsson, crime fiction possesses a reformist agency. Manchette's cunning intuition was to suggest that crime fiction isn't so much a progressive solution as another part of the cultural problem, as though the rote conventions of popular noir were only stylized instances of bourgeois repression, and that to destroy society you must also destroy the crime novel.

The situations of the ten books Manchette published during the '70s and '80s, mostly in Gallimard's Série noire, sound so familiar that you're sure you've experienced them already. In 3 to Kill (1976), Georges Gerfaut is an innocent businessman who chances on a murder, only to have his snug, humdrum world implode; he hunts down the killers, finds his way back to his wife, children, and job, and resumes his routine. In The Prone Gunman (1981), hit man Martin Terrier tries to retire, only to learn that "the company" holds other designs on his future, as mayhem and violence inevitably ensue. Each story shuffles stock noir set pieces—a shootout in a rustic cabin, an exploding gas station, a larcenous drifter on a train, kidnapping, official assassination, amnesia. As Martin self-consciously cautions a taxi driver who notices a Peugeot 404 tailing them, "You read too many crime novels." Guy Debord proposed much the same thing in the infamous opening strophe of The Society of the Spectacle: "The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation."

Reverting to type: Jean-Patrick Manchette, 1967.
Reverting to type: Jean-Patrick Manchette, 1967.

Manchette maintained that the "mystery novel is the great moral literature of our era," but against his beloved American prototypes—Hammett, David Goodis, and Jim Thompson—his morality was insistently public and never simply personal: The Killers Inside Us. He set his néo-polars (roughly, "neo-whodunits," a clever branding term he invented and then attacked) at the convergence of state crimes and individual yearnings. Martin might share every poor boy's dream of someday returning to his hometown in the chips to marry the rich girl, but to realize that dream he hires himself out as a government mercenary and contract killer. Similarly, when at the start and finish of 3 to Kill Georges slips into his car for his restless nightly race around Paris, Manchette notes that forces beyond bourbon, barbiturates, jazz, and even mood are in play, as he cheekily echoes Debord: "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." Here notions of internal motive and the noir double life disappear into the vast, shadowy force fields of politics and economics, and this Parisian midlevel manager in an American multinational only dimly intuits that he's an incidental character in a global narrative devised by an exiled secret-service chief of the Dominican Republic. Any private gestures are mediated through mass culture—Martin and Georges watch over and over the movies of Charles Bronson, Walt Disney, and Samuel Fuller and reread John D. MacDonald—just as every brand name and genre is duly catalogued: Mercedes, Four Roses, Sharp, and "West Coast–style jazz." Radio Luxembourg broadcasts wars, family tragedies, and Leonard Cohen in the same "neutral and low-key tone."

Fatale, published in France in 1977, is only the third of Manchette's novels to appear in English, and in Donald Nicholson-Smith's laconic translation it features strains of both Patricia Highsmith and Alain Robbe-Grillet. (Nicholson-Smith is also a translator of Debord.) The title summons the iconic noir femme fatale, but the incentive of the young woman who currently calls herself Aimée Joubert is not so much sex as business. Her MO involves insinuating herself into the financial elite of a new locale, most recently the obscure coastal industrial town of Bléville, discovering their secret conflicts, and then letting the market take over. "Mind you, this is work too, what I do. . . . . Worming yourself into the client's private life. Putting the idea of killing into his head, where in fact it already is. Then offering your services, ideally at a moment of crisis." For her first murder, she plunged a knife into her abusive husband's liver; along a continuum of venture capital and vengeful justice, seven more deaths followed. "It was a genuine revelation, you see," Aimée says. "They can be killed. The real assholes can be killed. Anyway, I needed money."

Bléville is Hammett's corrupt Poisonville of Red Harvest—yet with the impish Manchettean twist that L. & L. Enterprises, the local combined canned-fish, baby-food, and cattle-feed plant, actually is poisoning the citizenry. Aimée's target list of "real assholes" commences with L. & L. magnates Lorque and Lenverguez but ultimately spans the seaport's entire male civil-media-business power structure, excepting one Baron Jules, whom she reluctantly, almost inadvertently, also slays. This mad, crumbling aristocrat either converses in the stilted phrasing of a Max Ernst graphic novel—"You are a terrifyingly negative and beautiful person," he shouts at Aimée—or ventriloquizes the punkish, anticapitalist strains of May '68. "Think how long I have been observing those people," he remarks of L. & L. Enterprises and all those in thrall to them. "They make me want to vomit and destroy them."

For Fatale, Manchette deep-freezes the "cool" style that noir writers probably learned from Hemingway—his language has a tight, worked-over surface, so that every perception is immediate and concrete, and character is reduced to external action. In the bravura finale, Aimée manages another seven murders, the baroque, incredible throttlings, skewerings, and drownings dispatched almost as fast (I'm guessing) as Manchette could type them. Femme-fatale overkill? Or apocalyptic feminist angel? The features she beholds as she gazes into the mirror of her Bléville rented room have the look of any noir story, but they're also the face of history: past, present, future. "Sex always comes up first," she tells her reflection. "Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes. You have seen other towns, my sweet, and you'll see others, knock on wood." Embodying the psychosis she is obliterating, Aimée looms as at once the dead end of the crime novel and the avatar of a new, even auspicious way of life.

Robert Polito is the author of, most recently, Hollywood & God (University of Chicago Press, 2009) and the editor of Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (Library of America, 2009).