Thirty pages before the finale of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman, it’s hard not to wonder how the book could possibly end. At that point the novel’s protagonist, hit man Martin Terrier, having left a long trail of corpses in his path, has lost his few friends, every last centime of his ill-earned savings, and what little dreams sustained him. He has even lost his voice. But the book does end, in circumstances far worse than you might easily imagine, on a note of extraordinary bleakness.
Little about Manchette’s work could be called ordinary. Between 1971 and 1982, Manchette wrote 10 crime novels, twisting standard noir plotlines into tightly woven, cutting political critiques, and in the process giving new life to a genre that had been stagnating in France since the ’50s. Dubbed the father of the neo-polar, the new French crime novel, Manchette abandoned the genre in the 1980s, in the last decade of his life, writing for television and film and translating American thrillers by the likes of Ross Thomas and Donald Westlake. He fell to cancer in 1995, but has himself seen something of a rebirth in the years since. In France, Gallimard reissued several of his novels throughout the late ’90s. An unfinished novel set in Castro’s Cuba was published there in 1999, and a biography in 2000. Two of Manchette’s novels are now available in English: City Lights releases the aforementioned The Prone Gunman (1981) this month, and published 1976’s Three to Kill earlier this year.
Jean-François Gérault, Manchette’s biographer, calls him “the French Chandler,” but old red Hammett is probably a better match. Manchette was active in Communist circles throughout the ’60s, and turned toward Situationism in 1967 after reading The Society of the Spectacle. Echoes of Debord survive in his fiction (“It was all shit,” he writes in Three to Kill. “He would so much rather have been in a place where he could see things around him that were not in his own image, where everything did not speak to him of himself”), as does a wryly vulgar Marxism, but the general outlook of his books is crushingly devoid of revolutionary hopes. Manchette’s characters lurch about in the bitter desolation felt by the generation of ’68 in the years after their revolt crumbled, in a world where the ritualized battles between equally complacent classes only help disguise a shared alienation.
Thus Georges Gerfaut, Three to Kill‘s hapless protagonist, is a former radical now working for a subsidiary of a giant multinational, living a cushy bourgeois family life, with nothing of his militant past remaining but a vague “clutch of left-wing ideas.” Georges happens across a murder ordered by a retired Dominican torturer, does his best to ignore it, but is torn nonetheless from his emptily perfect life by the efforts of a pair of vicious but bumbling hit men. It’s an old storyline, but Manchette tweaks it playfully, and to no predictable end. Neither Georges’s class consciousness nor an appreciation for the yuppie good life are awakened by the experience, only insubstantial longings and a capability for brutality he didn’t know he had.
As tongue-in-cheek as much of Three to Kill may be, Manchette took crime writing seriously. He wrote critically and extensively about what he archly called “this little sub-literary form,” locating its roots in “the worldwide triumph of counter-revolution between 1920 and 1950,” a triumph, he wrote, that the “dominant ideology” would prefer to ignore. The tensions left in the wake of this victory, however—all the class fissures that accompany capitalism along its supposedly inevitable march—gave birth to the crime novel, which Manchette would ordain “the great moral literature of our era.”
By “moral,” Manchette means something quite different from the subtle didacticism of the conventional novel, which continues to show its religious roots under the guise of character development, insisting, in the end, on some variety of spiritual transformation for its protagonist. Manchette’s characters, by contrast, are never in control of their destinies, and cannot even see the forces shaping them. Three to Kill‘s Gerfaut remains baffled to the very end, and even the title of The Prone Gunman suggests its hero’s basic helplessness.
Manchette fights off all temptations toward sentimental humanism by refusing to provide even a glimpse at his characters’ inner workings. This happens in an embryonic way in Three to Kill (“He was thinking that the blood would soil the leather upholstery; or perhaps he was thinking nothing”), but is full-blown in The Prone Gunman. Drawing on Robbe-Grillet as much as James M. Cain, Manchette describes his characters with the same wealth of external detail, icily delivered, that he uses for apartment decor or a hi-fi system. We learn what kind of car they drive, and what gun they carry, but when it comes to motivation or emotion, the narrator is as clueless as we are: “His haggard face at first registered great perplexity; then it registered worry, thoughtfulness, or whatever other movements of consciousness that might cause his face to look as it did.”
The Prone Gunman, the last crime novel Manchette wrote, mixes two well-worn plotlines to cruelly ironic effect: the hit man who wants out of the game and the working-class boy made good who comes home to claim his girl. Martin Terrier grows up poor in a puddle of a provincial town, and has the misfortune to fall for the daughter of the town’s one factory owner, who forbids him from seeing her and sends him packing through the service entrance. Young Terrier makes his love promise to wait 10 years for him, swearing, “I will return, I will kill them, I will drag them through the shit, I will make them eat shit.” He does, but not in quite the way he had hoped: When the decade is up, Terrier, an accomplished assassin, wants to break free from his employer—a CIA-like American group referred to only as “the company”—and whisk away his old lover, now an alcoholic housewife who finds him absurd. The company, of course, does not want to let Terrier go, and blood and mayhem follow him home.
If The Prone Gunman is a brutal book, it’s not just the violence that makes it so, though there are bits of brains all over, thoracic cages blown bare of flesh, intestines that empty noisily as bullets pierce their owners. The deeper brutality is one of tone and vision, of a conquered world bereft of choice and hope. Terrier’s former boss mocks his dreams of flight: “There’s no place good anymore,” he says. “There’s nowhere to go.” If in the mid ’70s Manchette could still write bitter satire, by the early ’80s despair had set in, and, having mastered the genre, he bowed out. There was no place left to go.