The Prone Gunman
by Jean-Patrick Manchette
"He was like an electroshock to the
chloroformed country of literature and the
French thriller," Jean Francois Gerault has
said of Jean-Patrick Manchette. Manchette's
career as a novelist
spanned little more
than a decade—his
ten books published
by Gallimard from
1971 through 1982—
but during this period
he played a key role
in subverting the formulas of crime genre
fiction. "The crime novel," he once
proclaimed "is the great moral literature of
our time."  Manchette saw his interest in
genre stories as an extension of his leftist
political activism, and in his writing an implicit
social commentary and philosophical
overtones mix easily with elements drawn
from the lowest forms of pulp fiction.  If
Mickey Spillane had gone to the Sorbonne
and participated in the Paris barricades of
May 1968, he might have written like this.
Manchette also translated crime fiction by
American authors such as Donald Westlake,
Ross Thomas and Margaret Millar, as well as
Alan Moore's
Watchmen graphic novel. His
career also found him writing screenplays,
movie novelizations and young-adult fiction.  
Manchette was dead of lung cancer at age 53
in 1995, but his work has continued to find
new readers in recent years, especially through
a series of translations of his novels from the
1970s.
ROGUES GALLERY:
JEAN-PATRICK MANCHETTE
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Subverting the ethical norms of crime fiction may
seem a distinctly postmodern activity.  Yet novelists
have been doing it for at least 150 years. Victor
Hugo's
Les Misérables (1862) is the first significant
novel of crime and detection in
which the criminal is the hero
and the inspector the villain.  A
century later, this flip-flopping
of genre expectations entered the
mainstream, serving as a potent
undercurrent in many of the finest
suspense novels of the era, in-
cluding works such as Patricia
Highsmith's
The Talented Mr. Ripley
(1955), Leonardo Sciascia's The Day
of the Owl
(1961), and John le Carré's
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)—each of
which found  a new way to undercut the old
formulas of good-versus-evil.  Since then the
concept has become a familiar meme of mass
market pop culture through fare such as
The Fugitive,
Grand Theft Auto and The Sopranos.  

Yet long after Victor Hugo, French writers
continued to offer some of the most provocative
attempts to deconstruct the moral valence of crime
fiction.   With authors such as
Alain Robbe-Grillet,
Patrick Modiano and Jean-Patrick Manchette, the
dividing line between noir and nihilism is often
blurred, and no master detective ever arrives to
impose an ethical order on the proceedings.  To
comprehend this different kind of noir, imagine a
Raymond Chandler novel in which Philip Marlowe
can't decide whether he would rather solve a crime
or commit one—or perhaps even write about one.   

The interest in constructing a narrative is not just
the author's concern in these books, but is shared
by the character’s themselves.  The protagonist  in
Manchette's
The Prone Gunman, Martin Terrier, has
imposed a familiar—almost banal—storyline on to
his life.  He sets out in the world to seek his fortune,
with a ten-year plan to achieve great riches.  
Afterwards, he will return to his native city as the
town boy made good, and seek the hand of his
childhood sweetheart.   

But the resemblance to
The Great Gatsby or Horatio
Alger's rags-to-riches tales ends there.  Terrier is a
ruthless hired killer.  His first murder takes place
on page three—Terrier's victim’s head is "split
open, full of holes, and shattered like the shell of
hard-boiled egg."  In fact, this whole book is hard-
boiled.  The second murder in
The Prone Gunman
takes place in the very next sentence: "The girl flew
back, her intestines emptying noisily, and fell dead
on her back."  

At this point, the bloodshed should be over.  
Terrier—who sometimes adopts the alias Christian
in this book (see note above on subverting ethical
systems)—has completed his ten-year plan of
enrichment with this final "case" and now looks
forward to a new life with his lady love.  But his
organization doesn't give gold watches and
testimonial dinners when long-serving employees
announce their retirement.  They offer him a tidy
sum if he agrees to come back to work and take on
a high profile political assassination.  When he
refuses, they adopt more coercive methods of
gaining his compliance.

The rest of this book is densely pack with the three
Bs of crime fiction—bullets, blood and bodies.  
Yet Manchette withholds so many key details from
the reader that the recurring acts of violence take
on a surreal quality.   The purpose of the killings,
the motivations of the key characters, the nature of
the organizations at work:  these are all presented
in the most cursory fashion, or omitted entirely.  
And many of the explanations that are offered
come across as fabrications or half-truths.  Is
Terrier working for the KGB?  For the U.S.
government?  For an international terrorist group?  
For organized crime?  All are possible explanations,
and it's doubtful that even the gunman has a firm
handle on his situation.     

When Terrier loses the ability to speak midway
through the book, no physiological reason is
offered—yet this turn of events seems somehow
fitting.  Our now beleaguered protagonist has by
now completely failed in his attempts to tell his
own story, construct his own narrative.  Later his
speech returns—after our hero takes a bullet in the
head (see note above on the three Bs)—but now he
has the opposite problem:  he blabbers
uncontrollably, even in his sleep, although with no
apparent meaning to the nonstop discourse.

When, in the closing pages of this book, Terrier
gets involved in the publication of his personal
memoirs, this struggle to pin down the elusive
meaning of the very story we are reading reaches
the point of deliberate absurdity.  The gunman is
reduced to memorizing a bogus account provided
by a ghost writer he has never met.  In a fitting
coda, his superiors "forbade publication of the
work on the grounds that it was perfectly
ridiculous."

By the time they reach the final resolution of
The
Prone Gunman
, readers may feel they have arrived
at the start of an entirely different novel.   Instead
of hard-boiled realism, we are served up soft-boiled
farce.  Can stories can enter into the Witness
Protection Program and take up a new identity?   
Or at least change addresses to a different genre?   
Certainly we have now left the familiar landmarks
of the crime novel far behind.  You might try
interpreting
The Prone Gunman as a political
commentary, and the author’s biography will guide
you in that endeavor; even so, such a recasting of
the story will require the reader to do most of the
heavy lifting.  Or you might label this book as a
metaphysical thriller—if it weren't so bloody
materialist (in all significations of the phrase) at
every juncture.

Yet the immediacy of the story is irresistible.  If
Jean-Patrick Manchette were a cinematographer, he
would be the kind who changes camera angle every
few seconds.  If he were a composer, he would be
peddling raucous ringtones instead of cerebral
symphonies.  There is no downtime in this fast-
paced book, and interludes and subplots end with
the abruptness of an out-of-control driver slam-
ming into the vehicle in front of him.   Yes, the
story may leave you briefly puzzling over its en-
ticing gaps and unspoken particulars, but the
adrenalin rush will linger on.  Perhaps that
indicates the best way of approaching Manchette’s
novel:  put aside, at least momentarily, the mandate
to interpret and instead enjoy the thrill of the ride.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
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Further Clues:

Reviewers' comments on The Prone Guman (from The
Complete Review)

J.P. Smith on Jean-Patrick Manchette

The Jean-Patrick Manchette Internet Archive

Obituary of Jean-Patrick Manchette (from The
Independent)
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