AT JUST over 90 pages Jean-Patrick Manchette’s Fatale is a magnificent example of French noir stretched into the realms of art.
Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
Serpent’s Tail, £8.99; Kindle, £3.99
Cold, cruel and endlessly provocative, it tells the tale of a murderer-for-hire, and the untold havoc she wreaks on the small seaside town of Bléville. The beautiful and apparently vulnerable woman who is running under the name, Aimée Joubert, arrives by train and, with a little flaunting of wealth and unwittingly abetted by a real estate agent, Lindquist, quickly infiltrates the upper echelons of local society. And it soon becomes apparent, first at a local fair and then, in even more pronounced fashion, at an exclusive cocktail party, that the main power brokers, “the pillars of Bléville prosperity,” are Lorque and Lenverguez.
A pair of business partners in late middle-age, they run the town’s largest industries, the factories that churn out Happy Baby food, Old Sea-Pilot canned goods, and L and L cattle feed. The locals, even the police, hang on their every word. All, that is, except Baron Jules, who may or may not be insane.
The world begins to crumble with an outbreak of food poisoning that causes the deaths of an infant, an old woman, and some farm animals, and results in the hospitalisation of several other people. A newspaper reporter named DiBona is on the scent of a scandal, but with the police complicit, a cover-up manages to avert widespread panic.
However, such measures can only be temporary, especially when further deaths are reported. And this is where opportunity lies. When a deal is proffered — that one of her recent acquaintances, Moutet, who’d been contractually responsible at the plant for maintaining the cold storage rooms, agree to take the fall for everything — Aimée sets about spreading disaffection, and turning allies against one another. The key to her plan is Baron Jules.
In a place like Bléville, too many people have a past that they’d prefer kept hidden, and only he knows all the secrets and sins. Striking up a friendship with the old man, she coerces him into first drip-feeding revelations to the paper, and then creating an elaborate blackmailing scheme that will bring everyone of any importance into the wicked game.
Meanwhile, she propositions all those accused with a plot so vile it is scarcely to be believed: for a high price, and with the money to be deposited in various train station lockers, she’ll retrieve the baron’s written accusations and remove him permanently from the picture. She knows the score, but fails to reckon on a wavering of her usual moral ambivalence. This is a novel that starts mean, with Aimée in the woods emptying both barrels of her 16-bore shotgun into the stomach of a hunter named Roucart. He is the eighth victim of a thoroughly efficient career, and before the end of this short book there’ll be a great many more.
The writing is curt and pared back, with strong flavours of James M Cain, Jim Thompson, Simenon’s so-called romans durs and, most obviously, the hardboiled ‘behaviourism’ of Dashiell Hammett.
But Manchette, who died in 1995, possessed a voice entirely his own, one of violent existential minimalism, that helped elevate him to the pinnacle of French crime fiction during the 1970s and 80s.
Throughout Fatale, the pace hardly flags, and the plot is gripping and at times even shocking. But the book’s worth rests largely with the characterisation of Aimée. Deeply scarred, emotionally fragile, her repressions keep her emotionally disconnected, yet prone to passionate outbursts. She is the definition of a damaged soul, and following her story is like watching a car crash. It is impossible to look away.
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