Home > 1970, French Literature, Manchette Jean-Patrick, Noir, Polar > Manchette pushes all the right buttons

Manchette pushes all the right buttons

Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest by Jean-Patrick Manchette. 1976. English title: Three to Kill.

I bought Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest at the crime fiction festival Quai du Polar. I’ve had Manchette in mind for a long time and decided to try this one. I was hooked by the cover and intrigued by its title, but more of that later. Let’s read together the first paragraph of the novel.

Et il arrivait parfois ce qui arrive à présent : Georges Gerfaut est en train de rouler sur le boulevard périphérique extérieur. Il y est entré porte d’Ivry. Il est deux heures et demie ou peut-être trois heures un quart du matin. Une section du périphérique extérieur est fermée pour nettoyage et sur le reste du périphérique intérieur, la circulation est quasi nulle. Sur le périphérique extérieur, il y a peut-être deux ou trois ou au maximum quatre véhicules par kilomètre. Quelques-uns sont des camions dont plusieurs sont extrêmement lents. Les autres véhicules sont des voitures particulières qui roulent toutes à grande vitesse, bien au-delà de la limite légale. Plusieurs conducteurs sont ivres. C’est le cas de Georges Gerfaut. Il a bu cinq verres de bourbon 4 Roses. D’autre part il a absorbé, voici environ trois heures de temps, deux comprimés d’un barbiturique puissant. L’ensemble n’a pas provoqué chez lui le sommeil, mais une euphorie tendue qui menace à chaque instant de se changer en colère ou bien en une espèce de mélancolie vaguement tchékhovienne et principalement amère qui n’est pas un sentiment très valeureux ni intéressant. Georges Gerfaut roule à 145km/h. And sometimes what used to happen was what is happening now: Georges Gerfaut is driving on Paris’s outer ring road. He has entered at the Porte d’Ivry. It is two-thirty or maybe three-fifteen in the morning. A section of the inner ring road is closed for cleaning, and on the rest of the inner ring road traffic is almost non-existent. On the outer ring road there are perhaps two or three or at the most four vehicle per kilometre. Some are trucks, many of them very slow moving. The other vehicles are private cars, all travelling at high speed, well above the legal limit. This is also true of Georges Gerfaut. He has had five glasses of Four Roses bourbon. And about three hours ago he took two capsules of a powerful barbiturate. The combined effect on him has not been drowsiness but a tense euphoria that threatens at any moment to change into anger or else into a vaguely Chekhovian and essentially bitter melancholy, not a very valiant or interesting feeling. Georges Gerfaut is doing 145 kilometers per hour.Translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Personally, I thought that was brilliant and it is Manchette in a nutshell. The style is precise, clinical, mixing descriptions of feelings or a state of mind with descriptions of the environment. I imagined the place, the orange lights of the Paris’s outer ring road, the Porte d’Ivry and its industrial landscape. It’s bleak and we don’t know Georges Gerfaut yet but we already know that something’s gone awfully wrong in his life. Then we just discover what kind of bad turn his peaceful life has taken.

manchette_BleuGeorges Gerfaut is a middle manager in an IT company. He has a wife, two children. He’s average, not particularly brave, a bit of a coward to avoid conflict. He has a good relationship with his wife. They’re about to go on holiday at Saint-Georges-de-Didonne, on the West Coast, near Royans. One night, as he’s driving, he passes near a car that was in an accident and brings an injured man to the ER. When he arrives there, he drops the man and leaves. This will prove to be a bad decision. As it happens, this man was involved in the crime world and now Gerfaut is a target. Two hit men are after him and they first attempt at killing him at Saint-Georges-de-Didonne, on the beach, or more exactly in the ocean. Gerfaut manages to get rid of them and takes off. Without thinking, he climbs in his car and leaves his wife and children behind and goes back to Paris. The rest of the book relates the game of hide-and-seek between Gerfaut and his assailants.

As you may have guessed from the quote above, Manchette is excellent. His style fits the genre and keeps the reader on edge. He’s a man of few words but his descriptions are striking. He’s not trying to imitate the great American masters. No, he’s better than that. You’re not reading a dubbed version of an American novel. You’re reading a French polar, a book which is totally French in its essence and its references but respects the rules of noir fiction. Manchette has read, has taken over the codes and have transposed them in a French atmosphere. Or perhaps he’s just following Simenon’s path and I didn’t notice it because I haven’t read Simenon yet, except for two Maigret.

The style sounds like a cold voice over and the plot is simple but gripping, I wondered if and how Gerfaut would get out of this. I wanted to keep on reading to know the ending.

The novel dates back to the 1970s and it’s rooted in its decade. Manchette refers to political fights and reminded me how violent these years were. Why doesn’t Gerfaut go to the police? Well, the police don’t have a good reputation in these years. Not after the métro Charonne or after Mai 68. It’s written in 1976, between the two energy crisis and France’s economy is in stagnation. The whole context pervades in the book and explains why Gerfaut is how he is. He’s a product of the French society. While I was reading, I was also reminded again how little privacy we have now. We’re used to it and we don’t notice anymore. I noticed how Gerfaut easily vanishes from his life. Nowadays, it would be almost impossible to move without leaving traces of your cell phone, your credit card or your way through tolls on the motorway. Even this first paragraph would be hard to write today: Georges would get caught by the CCTV on the outer ring road, he’d get an automatic fine for driving over the speed limit. The authorities would have known he’d been there. Inconspicuous is hard to manage these days.

As always when I write about crime fiction, I’m terribly dissatisfied by my billet. Somehow, I never manage to analyse properly a crime fiction novel. So I’m glad that you can read Guy’s post here or Max’s here, you will find excellent analysis of the literary merits of Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest or relevant comments about its political content.

Now about the title. The English title, Three to Kill is the translation of the French subtitle, Trois hommes à abattre. The French title, Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest, is difficult to translate. It has different meanings and I didn’t know what it meant until I read the book. Manchette was a great amateur of jazz and so is Gerfaut in the book. The title can be translated as The little blues of the West Coast and there are indeed references to jazz in the book. And the West coast is where Gerfaut is on vacation the first time the killers attempt to murder him. Moreover, un petit bleu is a telegram and a telegram plays a key role in the plot. And last, un bleu is a rookie and that’s what Gerfaut is on the crime scene. See how many meanings Manchette managed to convey simply in the title of his book? That’s him. Not many words but much to ponder about.

PS: There’s a “cross-language” pun in the title of this post. For readers who’d need help, here’s a clue: go to a French-English dictionary and check out the French word for cufflink.

  1. June 30, 2013 at 1:10 am

    This title remains my favourite of the three Manchette novels I’ve read. Wish more would find their way to translation. Your privacy comment is timely given my recent reading of Max Barry’s latest: Lexicon.


    • June 30, 2013 at 10:04 pm

      I thought about Jonathan Coe (Maxwell SIM) and Andrew Blackman (On the Holloway Road)
      I’ll read Lexicon later, maybe before Marchine Man.
      I’ll read other books by Manchette, that’s certain. Your review of Three to Kill is excellent, btw.


      • July 3, 2013 at 5:45 pm

        Ah thanks, Emma. I thought about On the Holloway Road when you mentioned the speed cameras too, but thought it was just me being narcissistic.

        Nice headline pun, by the way 🙂


        • July 3, 2013 at 9:29 pm

          I don’t think we have as many cameras here as you have in England. But there are some on ring roads.

          I know I’m weird but I like reading security messages in train or else in different languages. It’s funny how we don’t take the same road to say the same thing.


  2. June 30, 2013 at 9:20 am

    I have a Manchette novel but always forget about it.
    The style is very dry, very voice over, as you write. I’m not sure that’s typically French, to be honest, I think it’s more a sign of the time. Nowadays people write with more fluff.
    I find it very relaxing when someone writes like Manchette. The novel I have is “”L’Affaire N’Gustro .


    • June 30, 2013 at 10:08 pm

      I meant it’s French for the atmosphere, not particularly for the style. He’s very good, it’s like watching a film. He goes deeper than the surface of events and with a few touches here and there, you have a painting of France at the time. (Not that I remember it, but still. It sounds like the songs Renaud wrote at the time)


  3. June 30, 2013 at 9:55 am

    Nice review, Emma! This looks like a wonderful fast-paced noir thriller. Glad to know that it has been translated into English. I will look for it. I liked very much your explanation of the title. So many meanings with just one word! I also found your thoughts on being anonymous and maintaining privacy quite throught provoking – yes, it is very difficult to do that these days. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    On the topic of noir thrillers, have you read ‘Trap for Cinderella’ (‘Piège pour Cendrillon’) by Sebastien Japrisot?


    • June 30, 2013 at 10:12 pm

      Thanks Vishy. It’s worth reading.

      I have only read Un long dimanche de fiançailles by Japrisot. I’d like to read L’été meurtrier, the film is so famous.


      • July 8, 2013 at 7:42 am

        Nice to know that, Emma. I saw the movie version of ‘Un long dimanche de fiançailles’ and liked it very much. I think this was the first time I have seen Jodie Foster in a French movie and so I was very happy 🙂 I will try to read the book sometime.


        • July 8, 2013 at 5:26 pm

          I didn’t remember Jodie Foster was in this film. The foreign actress we see the most in French films is Kristin Scott Thomas. Her French is amazing.


  4. Brian Joseph
    June 30, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    The passage that you quoted really is great writing. Absolutely agree regarding the description of the real world, it is like one is there, yet it is literary.


    • June 30, 2013 at 10:14 pm

      He was an excellent writer. I wonder why I waited so long to read one of his books. Too many books, too little time is probably the answer.


  5. July 1, 2013 at 6:35 am

    I often think that the books right under my fingers are the ones I put off reading.


  6. July 2, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    He’s a remarkable writer, though of the two of his I’ve read I thought this the best. Far more than simple noir, there’s a very strong political subtext to it all. He has a remarkably flat prose style, which for me worked very well. It is though also a very effective fast paced noir. It’s clever stuff.

    Thanks for the link to my review by the way.

    Our books are in the dining room. I could throw a stone at random and probably hit something I should read but haven’t yet. Too many books, too little time.

    Lovely notes on the title, and I did google cufflink in French. Nicely done.


    • July 2, 2013 at 9:52 pm

      He’s excellent and your review is very interesting. I hope other readers dropped by to read it.
      I thought I’d write about the French title, it’s something you couldn’t possibly know.


  7. leroyhunter
    July 16, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Lovely notes on the title and translation.

    Very true as well about how hard it would be to just “drop out of sight” now. In some ways that’s a worrying fact.

    I’ve read 3 by Manchette and would love to read more.


    • July 16, 2013 at 8:24 pm

      Sometimes it’s worrying that we’re always reachable. It came gradually but the result is there. Think about metro cards, they can trace your journey easily. Plus phones, credit cards…


  1. December 27, 2013 at 12:08 am

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