Potted reviews – Fatale, Knockemstiff and The Wheelman

Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette – Hitwoman Aimee Joubert heads to Bléville and causes trouble by using an impoverished Baron to help her turn the town’s inhabitants against one another so that she can undertake a dastardly plan. As with all good Manchette novels, a lot of carnage ensues.

Fatale feels in a sense like a more subversive play on Hammett’s Red Harvest, which was fairly subversive itself. The Blé in Bléville apparently means wheat or the dough that’s made from it. Dough is obviously an Americanism for money – Moneyville, in other words. It feels kind of like Poisonville (which is the nickname of Personville, the town in Red Harvest). The heroine also plays the various sides against each other in a similar way to the Continental Op and both novels have a similarly jaundiced worldview and large amounts of bloodshed. It’s a weaker novel than both Three To Kill and The Prone Gunman, but considering they’re out-and-out works of genius and this is merely excellent there’s no shame in that. It is incredibly readable and comes highly recommended

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray PollockKnockemstiff is a short story collection set in and around the town of Knockemstiff, Ohio. The stories range from incredibly sad to funny and most of them are as black as a mineshaft at midnight. Pollock’s prose is as lean as a racing greyhound and just as nippy. Some of the characters from one story reappear in another (or get name checked). There isn’t a duffer amongst them and at their best (Knockemstiff and Honolulu, in particular) they damn near took my breath away. Go out and buy it straight away – you won’t be sorry.

The Wheelman by Duane Swierczynski – Lennon is a mute Irish getaway driver who finds that getting out of Philadelphia is a lot more difficult than he had anticipated. He finds himself pursued by the Russian Mafia, the Italian Mob, an ex-policeman and various other criminals, all falling over each other to get their hands on $650,000 of loot.

This is the first Swierczynski novel that I’ve read but it won’t be the last. It’s a cartoon romp that’s almost too tricky for its own good at times, but it is also a damn fine piece of entertainment that races by at an astonishing pace. It has some excellent moments of black comedy along with some nicely written set-pieces. If you like heist capers you’ll really enjoy this.

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.

My Favourite Crime Novels – No. 14

The Prone Gunman – Jean-Patrick Manchette, like Georges Simenon, has that very great skill of packing a lot into very few pages. The prose is icy-cool, camera-eye stuff and the action unrelenting. The basic story is about a professional hitman called Martin Terrier who tries to quit his life and return to his home town to be with the woman he loves. But basic story be damned, it’s a more potent brew than that, which is to be expected of a writer who called crime fiction the ‘great moral literature of our era’. Still, don’t get me wrong, it is also a cracking, fast-paced thriller, but if you look beneath the surface it is also a lot more than that. The hero is a poor boy made good and a superb assassin, but he is also emotionally a bit of a child, not surprising considering that he’s a sociopath, and not half as bright as he likes to think he is. The woman he loves is now a very damaged alcoholic who finds Terrier to be a bit of an idiot and the organisation he works for have no intention of letting him leave, at least not alive. From here on in everything starts to fall apart for Terrier and the bodies mount up. The twist at the end is beautifully done; so much so that I’ll not give it away, but Terrier ends up becoming what he wanted to escape from in the first place. It’s a truly bitter pill, but as grim joyrides go The Prone Gunman is one of the best there is! Read it. Now!