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three to kill

3 january 2018

I picked up Jean-Patrick Manchette's '70s French noir novel Three to Kill after finding it at random on a library shelf – still one of my favorite ways to find books. I checked it out because the back of the book promised a wrong-man suspenser of the kind that Alfred Hitchcock dealt largely in. Manchette's novel, and translator Donald Nicholson-Smith, delivered in spades.

The protagonist of Three to Kill is Georges Gerfaut, and we know from the start that he's a killer. Though nothing in his background predicted his talent for killing. He's a mild-mannered middle manager in a corporate sales department. He makes the mistake – an innocent one, driven by fear of repercussions for neglect – of helping a badly-wounded motorist get to a hospital.

Except that the badly-wounded man has somehow offended a Dominican-Republic torturer in exile, and the torturer's two hired killers have set off on a mission to murder the guy, anybody who helps him, and anybody he may have talked to in passing. Gerfaut doesn't know the victim from Adam and drives off from the hospital without learning his name. He barely even connects the good-Samaritan incident with the sudden appearance of two thugs trying to kill him.

The hit-men are one of the book's grim, electric pleasures. They've been coolly efficient professionals for years.

But then they had run into this moron Georges Gerfaut. A travelling salesman, though, is usually very easy to kill. Carlo and Bastien were well placed to draw comparisons because they had exercised their skills in the most varied social milieus. They were now beginning to get quite angry with Georges Gerfaut. (52)
The ensuing caper reminded me not only of Hitchcock but of Sjöwall & Wahlöö (constant left-wing critique of modern capitalism; evilly enough for the mid-1970s, Gerfaut works for a subsidiary of ITT), George V. Higgins (crisp dialogue and offbeat situations), and George Pelecanos. Pelecanos because he is also a master of noir, but for a very specific additional reason: Manchette, like Pelecanos, is obsessed with giving us ultra-specific details of products and brand-names, especially every character's radio and LP playlists. Of course, I have no idea whether Manchette read Sjöwall & Wahlöö, or Pelecanos read Manchette: both streams of influence are plausible, but the similarities might equally have come straight from the Zeitgeist.

Gerfaut's fondness for "west-coast jazz" lies behind the French title, "Petit Bleu de la côte ouest." It could mean "telegram from the west coast" or the "west side," and at one point a telegram to the west coast is important to the plot, which works its way around to the west side of Paris in time. But the phrase also seems to mean "a little blues from the West Coast" (44), Gerfaut's preferred music. The titles seem to have switched languages a bit in the two decades since Manchette's early death. A graphic-novel version in English is now called West Coast Blues, and a French reprint of the prose novel is called Trois hommes à abattre.

The library where I found Three to Kill is my own university library, which acquired it upon publication in 2002 but now rarely buys physical books anymore unless a user specifically requests it. I can't argue with a vast, well-heeled library ready to buy books at my whim, but at times I would prefer they buy books I don't already know about, so that years later, I can find them.

Manchette, Jean-Patrick. Three to Kill. [Petit Bleu de la côte ouest, 1976.] Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. San Francisco: City Lights, 2002. PQ 2673 .A452P4713