Rating 5 stars
I’ve had Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale on my Kindle since 2016. It was about time I read it, and I’ve chosen it for the French leg of my European book tour. It follows the fortunes of a young widow who conceals her identity to take on the role of killer-for-hire.
The action mostly takes place in a seaside town that Manchette names Bléville. There’s a commune next to Le Havre called Bléville. On previous visits to France, I’ve stayed in Paris and the area of France known as Loir-et-Cher, but haven’t seen Le Havre or Bléville, so that’s where I shall take my virtual holiday.
Le Havre is a commune in Normandy and a major port, located on the estuary of the Seine close to the English Channel, or La Manche as it’s known in France. Established by François I in 1517, it’s another UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks to its post-WWII concrete architecture, designed by Auguste Perret, who we met in The Invisible Bridge. There’s a show apartment preserved in Le Havre, where visitors can experience the modern way of living Perret brought to the city between 1945 and 1955.
I love the Impressionists, so I’m also going to visit the André Malraux Modern Art Museum and enjoy its collection of Impressionist paintings. Monet, it is said, began this art style with his painting ‘Impression, Sunrise’, showing the sun rising through the industrial chimneys of Le Havre.
The building this art museum is housed in is also stunning.
In Bléville I will visit the Dubocage de Bléville Mansion Museum. This was the home of a merchant seaman from the 18th century, who helped to establish trade between France and China. His nine-year expedition made him a wealthy man. He bought this 16th century townhouse and established a ‘cabinet of curiosities’. Now a museum, it tells the history of Le Havre through permanent and changing exhibitions.
I knew nothing about Manchette before I read the biography at the front of Fatale. He was a politically active student at the Sorbonne in the early 1960s, and was influenced by the Situationists. After dropping out of his English studies, he worked for Éditions Gallimard, translating American crime novels into French for Gallimard’s Série Noire. He went on to write his own crime novels for the imprint, establishing a new form of detective fiction that incorporated politics and social radicalism.
Fatale is his ninth novel, and the first Gallimard rejected for the Série Noire. Manchette’s aim with the novel was to make it “as streamlined as possible”. The publisher didn’t understand what he was trying to do. After Gallimard eventually published it separately to the Série Noire collection, Manchette wrote to a friend to explain his approach. “I had embarked with enthusiasm in an attempt, so to speak, to try and desiccate the crime thriller as much as I could, this time by applying to my subject matter a very carefully crafted “Marxist” architecture …” Manchette refers also to the Situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem, author of The Totality for Kids, a key text in the student revolutionary movement of 1968.
The foreword to this edition is by David Peace, and he puts Manchette in the same class as Dashiell Hammett.
Not only were Hammett and Manchette great writers – with their characters and their stories, in their language and their styles – they were Great RED Writers; men of the Left. And not what masquerades as left now, but the Left. And it was rare enough at the time Hammett was writing, rarer still when Manchette was writing, but now almost extinct.”
For Peace, Manchette is “someone who had seen the political potential of the “crime story” and had then actually fulfilled that potential, while never once compromising his stories or his style for manifestos and theories.”
Fatale, Peace believes, is a challenge to any writer or reader who understands that the world is flawed and yet still worth fighting for.
The novel is punchy, the chapters short. The protagonist starts the novel known as Mélanie Horst. She has allegedly already left the small town where a man out hunting encounters her in the woods. Wrong time, wrong place for him. With one kill under her belt, Mélanie sets off for Bléville on the night sleeper, transforming herself en route into Aimée Joubert, a young widow looking for a seaside property where she can re-enter a social life, following the death of her husband.
She acquaints herself with the town by walking and cycling its streets, and by reading its two “left-capitalist” newspapers. She acquaints herself with its inhabitants by shopping in the town, commissioning the local estate agent to find her a property, and attending the opening of the town’s new fish market. She signs up for various clubs, including fencing, martial arts, golf, tennis and horse riding.
As she explores the town, her engagement with its physicality is punctuated by signs that appear on rubbish bins, telephone boxes, a weighing machine, that read “KEEP YOUR TOWN CLEAN”. As the story progresses, these signs seem akin to Chekhov’s gun, a small detail with larger significance to the story.
At the fish market opening ceremony, the estate agent introduces her to the couples who own the pharmacy and the bookshop, and the local doctor, whose opinion piece on industrial pollution in the town she had read in one of the newspapers, introduces himself to her. The estate agent, bookshop owners and pharmacy couple are all bourgeois. The doctor is defined by them as a nihilist and Trotskyite.
All of the businesses in Bléville are owned by a pair of businessmen, Lorque and Lenverguez, the hosts of a cocktail party after the opening of the fish market. Aimée uses the party to become better acquainted with the town’s society people and to observe the tensions and intrigues between them. After this introduction, she spends the following weeks building a dossier on the town and its inhabitants, while also developing her martial arts skills, and rejecting each of the properties the estate agent shows her round.
There’s an interlude when Aimée takes a train to an unnamed town in the centre of France where, in auburn wig and under the name of Madame Souabe, she meets a financial advisor who half believes her story that she works as an actress in England. She hands over to him a large amount of cash, which he jokes is rather irregular.
I got a similar vibe from this novel to that of the Killing Eve tv series. Aimée is a woman who strives to be in control of herself, who changes her appearance and persona to suit her circumstances, who is unknowable and ruthless. She is similarly charming and nihilistic to Villanelle. It made me wonder whether Luke Jennings had read Fatale before writing his Villanelle books. There are hints along the way about Aimée’s past, about how she came to be the person she is now, but it takes a moment in which she regrets her choice for the detail to be spelled out. Manchette was successful in paring back the narrative and leaving just the right amount of information to intrigue and impel. His writing style reminded me of his British contemporary, Derek Raymond, albeit in a less graphically violent way.
Aimée suspects something corrupt at the heart of the Bléville social set, something connected to the company L and L, and its unacknowledged subsidiaries and brand names. The behaviour of the social elite in the town is straight from the pages of Nancy Mitford or Evelyn Waugh. There are adulterers and cuckolds, social climbers and capitalists, all depicted satirically. Outside the charmed circle is Baron Jules, a man frequently committed to the psychiatric hospital, who lives in a decaying manor house, old money reduced to poverty, and a man who rails against the capitalist corruption of the new elite. He is a Hegelian idealist with pretensions to Marxism, giving Aimée rambling speeches that cause her to exclaim, “What are you talking about?” on the first occasion and, “I don’t understand a word you’re saying” on the second.
On this second occasion, the Baron has elucidated on how someone who believes themself to be above the law will never get away with it, which gave me a little feeling of hope for the times we’re living in.
“The accepted and established laws are defended against the law of a single individual because they are not empty necessity, unconscious and dead, but are spiritual substance and universality, in which those in whom this spiritual substance is realized live as individuals, and are conscious of their own selves. … Even when they complain of this ordinance, … as if it went contrary to their own inmost law, and maintain in opposition to it the claims of the ‘heart’, in point of fact they inwardly cling to it as being their essential nature; and if they are deprived of this ordinance, or put themselves outside the range of this influence, they lose everything.”
A crisis occurs in the town. A fall guy is selected to take the blame, to protect those at the top of the social tree. Aimée sees an opportunity to act, and to bring Baron Jules with her as an ally. But he is suspicious of why so new an arrival should be interested in bringing down the house of cards. As with any crisis in a capitalist society built on the acquisition and retention of power and the ability to profit from that power, Manchette tells us that the people of Bléville react in specific ways that are familiar from any public crisis that involves money and jobs, power and security.
Many solid citizens pretended to be appalled; quite a few, out of stupidity, really were appalled. Others stood up for Lorque and Lenverguez. The bourgeoisie of Bléville was split in two.
In the course of the crisis, Aimée is first taken by the Baron to his manor house and later visits him there twice. Each time, Manchette is sure to mention that there is a gun hanging on the wall, “a Weatherby Regency under-and-over double-barrel shotgun”, a literal Chekhov’s gun, raising the question of whether Manchette is making a false promise, or whether his claim of streamlining and desiccating the crime novel means that this is a gun that will fulfill its promise.
The action ramps up in an unexpected way, with twists to the plot, and a siege-like game of hide and seek at the docks that kept me gripped.
The novel ends abruptly, intriguingly, with Manchette pulling back from the action and inserting himself as the narrator/observer. There is room for the reader to draw their own conclusions, things could go either way, depending on whether you are an optimist or a realist.
Aimée is a version of Robin Hood, meting out punishment to the corrupt, ridding society of their presence, but doing so to her own financial advantage. Even though Manchette doesn’t give us much about her to go on, we are still able to draw the conclusion that she is complex. She’s likeable, too, despite her chosen profession. Manchette manages to get these things across without recourse to giving Aimée an inner voice. All she ever gives away is her love of crisis and conflict. But her engagement with the world, her wryness, her amusement when men flirt with her, her observational detachment also tell us about who she is and whether, if she were not a killer, we would want her as a friend. A couple of the other female characters seem to think that they would like her as a friend. There is an attractive nonchalance about her.
I was impressed by this novel. There are others of Manchette’s novels translated into English, and I will be sure to try more by him.