My Favourite Crime Novels – No. 20

Three To Kill – Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Three To Kill is much like The Prone Gunman in that it’s a very cold, detached piece of work, as happy meticulously describing a stereo system as it is describing the characters that populate its pages – treating both as objects, in essence; objects that Manchette’s moves around the chessboard of his plot with chilly abandon. In fact, when Manchette describes Georges Gerfaut, the hero of the novel, he describes him in relation to the vehicle he is driving:

“Georges Gerfaut is a man under forty.  His car is a steel-gray Mercedes.  the leather upholstery is mahogany brown, matching all the fittings of the vehicle’s interior.  As for Georges Gerfaut’s interior, it is somber and confused; a clutch of left-wing ideas may just be discerned.”

It turns out to be a very neat touch making Gerfaut a left-winger who has slowly but surely slipped into contented, though slightly bored, white-collar bourgeouis lifestyle. One night he is forced, more by social mores than out of concern, to help somebody who has been hurt in an accident – but it’s not an accident, a gunshot as it so happens. By doing this he sets in motion a chain of events that leads to him being pursued by two hitmen – despatched by a right-wing paramilitary who’s attempting to keep his identity a secret

Gerfaut responds by eventually killing one of them after several attempts on his life. Then he goes on the run, is attacked by a psychotic vagrant with a hammer, thrown off a train and ends up in the mountains, where he is taken in by, and becomes the friend with, an elderly bone-setter. The bone-setter teaches him how to hunt with guns, equipping Gerfaut with skills he’ll use in the final section of the novel.

When the bone-setter dies, his beautiful bourgeouis daughter turns up and inherits the place. Gerfaut makes a poorly judged pass at her and is rebuffed, but she keeps him on as a handyman. Later she returns and they start an affair. All the while, though, the second hitman is closing in on him, leading to a storming third-act.

Three To Kill is a superb piece of crime fiction but it’s more than that too. It’s a great example of Hemingway’s Iceberg theory in action; a lot of story, a lot of subtext is hidden well below the water-line of the main plot. Gerfaut is a classic consumer – the kind of person who loves his stereo and his lifestyle trappings as much as he loves his family – though he is able to cast off that lifestyle, and his family, without too much hardship. TTK also makes comments about people viewing their lives through the prism of popular culture: on a few occasions Gerfaut views his life almost as an outsider, relating his predicament to films he’s watched or books he has read. Both of these pieces of subtext are still relevant, if not more so, to readers today (I like to think if Manchette was alive today his heroes would be in thrall to the Church of Apple, drowning beneath the weight of their gadgets). Despite being a slim volume, this novel has a lot to say beneath the surface.

The beauty of Three To Kill is if you want to read it as just a thriller, you can – and a barnstorming one it is too – but if you want something deeper than that, it’s there too, just beneath the main text, if you care to look for it.