The French have always had an ambivalent attitude to “les Americans”. On the one hand, their peak body for literature and language, the Academy Francaise, spends considerable time and effort to cleanse the French language from Anglicisms. On the other, there has always been a fascination with American popular culture – jazz, Hollywood and hardboiled crime fiction amongst it.
Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942 – 1995) firmly falls into the latter category. Economically told in an emotionally detached voice, it tells the story of a modern femme fatale, Aimee Joubert, who arrives in provincial Bleville and turns the smug, self-satisfied life of the town’s bourgeoisie onto its head. She is a killer, seemingly without a cause, although as it turns out in the end, there is a moral to the mayhem she unleashes.
The British novelist Sebastian Faulks once remarked that that tropes are the clichés we like and Manchette masterfully uses the building blocks of the classic tale of the avenging stranger riding into town and getting rid of a nasty gang of corrupt leaders, not without injecting some black humour with its repeated reference to the communal “Keep our town clean” signs.
Originally published in 1977, the slim novel paradoxically projects both an aura of timelessness while at the same time bringing to mind the cinematic mood of a particular era. Manchette’s style of distilling all elements of his story to its essentials and eschewing detailed descriptions of place and time puts it at odds with the more recent trend of atmospheric crime which evokes a specific sense of its era and location. By the same token, the mood he creates is reminiscent of movies by Claude Chabrol and, particularly in its final eruption of violence, Jean Pierre Melville – a skill presumably honed by his experience as a seasoned writer for film and TV.
“The crime novel is the great moral literature of our time,” claimed Manchette who reportedly started out as a writer of Trotskyite pamphlets in his student days. The novel was initially rejected by Manchette’s regular publisher, the famous Series Noir Gallimard, as too literary, and in some ways it is burdened by being too self-conscious of its moral and literary aspirations. It is questionable whether this slim volume can fulfil its premise of unmasking the inhumanity of capitalism by deconstructing the genre and charging its sparse, descriptive sentences with a vague sense of symbolism. But disregarding its lofty ambitions and reading it as genre fiction, there is still a lot of pleasure to be had from this tight and tense tale of a nihilistic assassin going up against a town’s old boys’ network.
Jean-Patrick Manchette, Fatale, (translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith), New York Review Books