Rediscovered: Manchette

Finally. More Jean-Patrick Manchette makes the leap into English-language print. After nine years. Powers-That-Be, come on, speed it up.

In March 2002 City Lights Noir created a shockwave among noir cognoscenti with Donald Nicholson-Smith’s riveting translation of Three to Kill, Manchette’s 1976 thriller about businessman Georges Gerfaut on the run from a couple of incredibly well-armed hitmen named Carlo and Bastien. Absurdly funny, a lean 140 pages, ripped prose like early Parker from Richard Stark. Manchette (1942-1995) already had a tremendous reputation in Europe, and Three to Kill left no doubt why.

The Prone Gunman followed in December 2002, translated by the then current editor of the noir line from City Lights, James Brook: “Terrier drew back a little on his seat and stopped pressing the barrel of the HK4 against the throat of the young man.” A gleeful, relentless narrative in stripped-down behaviorist prose. First published in France in 1981, it was Manchette’s tenth thriller — apparently he decided he would never be able to top this compact 158 page masterpiece, and retired from the form at the absolute top of his game.

Now, New York Review Books has stepped in with Fatale, the 1977 novel that came between Three to Kill and The Prone Gunman. 112 tight pages, translated by Nicholson-Smith, including an afterword consisting of nine notes by Jean Echenoz, due out this May. A female assassin calling herself Aimée Joubert arrives in a small French town, and the usual Manchettean mayhem ensues. I can’t tell you how happy I was to get a review copy early and not have to wait another few months to read this one. Out of many great absurdist moments, I suppose my favorite was:

Pushing eastward, and inland, one came to refineries, then to a plant producing canned fish, baby food, and cattle feed in three adjacent factory buildings, each operation bearing its own company name so as not to alarm consumers.

There’s also an incident with a baby that brought the infamous baby episode in Charles Willeford’s radio soap opera The Story of Mary Miller rocketing back into my mind — I probably shouldn’t have laughed out loud, but I did.

I’m not recommending Manchette across the board to just anyone — people who like bread-and-butter series mysteries might well hate his work. But if you like truly noir writers such as David Goodis, or Willeford, especially in such books as The Burnt Orange Heresy, or Hammett in his The Glass Key mode, you should grab the two titles from City Lights and line up for Fatale. Put it this way: if you like existential crime novels, you’re not going to do better than Manchette.

And especially for Hammett fans, I couldn’t help but notice that Manchette seems to be doing a little riff on the town-tamer motif Hammett worked in Red Harvest, and the resulting effect of going “blood simple” on the main character with a gun.

Jean-François Gérault, Manchette’s biographer, selected The Prone Gunman and L’Affaire N’Gustro, the first crime novel the author wrote, as his favorites. L’Affaire remains unavailable in English. Seven more novels to go. Seven. And we noir fans need them all.

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