Tangled Web UK Review November 2006
File Updated: 18/11/2006

Buy at Amazon Price Prone Gunman Prone Gunman by Jean Patrick Manchette
pbk out November 06 (Serpent's Tail) at £7.99

Twenty-five years after its publication in France, eleven years after the death of its author, the last completed novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette at last comes out in the UK. Does it stand up?
It certainly does. Whilst firmly of its time and place, (francs, a plethora of Citroëns, radio shows that flit from jazz to Purcell, cultural references from Marion Brown, Archie Shepp and Régis Debray to Verdi and Bryan Ferry), this is timeless, questioning, quintessential noir.
The protagonist is professional hit man, Martin Ferrier, referred to as Christian or, more often (by the third person narrator) as 'the man'. In a jolting opening chapter, he dispatches, up close and impersonally (and in Worcester!), a Marshal Dubovsky along with an accompanying woman. Back in Paris, Ferrier abruptly severs his long-term relationship with girlfriend Alex, refuses one last job from his employer, takes a vaguely threatening phone-call, then sets off for the south of France on a personal quest of his own. It doesn't go quite as planned.
The name of Jean-Patrick Manchette comes with an extraordinary amount of baggage. Credited with revitalising noir fiction in France, he was first a journalist, a translator of crime fiction (from Bloch to Westlake), later a screenwriter for both film and television. Influenced by the situationist movement of Guy Debord that played a key part in the events of May '68, Manchette's ten crime novels, by all accounts, reflect the creeping disillusion of France's post-68 generation. He died of cancer in 1995, aged 53.
Unlike his first novel L'Affaire N'Gustro (1971), a fictionalised version of the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Moroccan politician Ben Barka in Paris in 1965 (and by a strange coincidence the subject of Serge Le Péron's current movie I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, possibly at an art-house near you), Gunman has no basis in history. But as the violence escalates, and we glimpse fragments of the wider world in which Terrier operates, the novel is not only an object lesson in hard-boiled fiction, but an oblique commentary on the realities of its time, not to mention our own.
Admirably translated by James Brook, Manchette's prose, whilst allowing for odd flashes of dark humour, is cool, clinical and perfectly paced. The closing chapters are as chilling as any you will find in crime fiction.
Serpent's Tail will publish another Manchette novel in February 2007. It is Three to Kill from 1976. Don't miss that one either.

( Bob Cornwell )

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