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Manchette pushes all the right buttons

June 29, 2013 18 comments

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.

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