It’s customary for Americans to mock the French, but honesty compels us to admit that our continental cousins do a lot of things well. Fine wine, for example, and gourmet cuisine and sixteenth-century theological reformations. Let me add something else to the list -- slim volumes of literary-minded noir. Consider Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman to be Exhibit A.
Noir could be summed up as desperate people doing criminally nasty things, and The Prone Gunman more than owns the label. Its protagonist, Martin Terrier, is a hired killer for an unnamed outfit dubbed The Company and he’s good at his job. Need a bare-handed, face-to-face hit or a long shot with a high-powered rifle? Neither are a problem for Terrier, but his heart really isn’t in killing. All he wants is to make his mint, marry his upper-crust childhood sweetheart and retire to a south sea island. But once you’re in The Company, it isn’t exactly easy to get out …
Manchette's spare style is both his greatest asset and liability. He writes like Hemmingway, penning short, observational sentences that preclude you for his characters’ thoughts. This makes for some disjointed jumps in point of view and a few confusing passages where one must decipher the emotional import of Terrier’s mannerisms. But instead of turning to overly expository dialogue to communicate feeling, he uses another technique -- repetition. Simple, off-hand observations -- the course of a cold winter wind, a recipe for a mixed drink, a description of abstract art hanging in a condo -- crop up again and again, gradually accreting significance. You see this best in the final chapter. Though it’s an almost word-for-word reiteration of the introduction, Manchette turns it just so, makes all the pieces come together and slams you in the chest with it like a sledgehammer.
It's an impressive feat, but also unsatisfying. Downbeat dénouements have their place, but the strong shot of fatalism Machette added to Terrier’s violent escapades spoils the mix for me. Of course, I am American and therefore essentially optimistic, a characteristic the French have never minded mocking.