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25 february 2018

Fatale, a 1977 crime novella by Jean-Patrick Manchette, reminded me a bit of the great 1968 noir film La mariée était en noir: "The Bride Wore Black." It's also reminiscent of The List of Adrian Messenger (filmed in 1963) and similar stories of serial mayhem that have their roots in Agatha Christie (Ten Little Indians) and other "lighter" crime fictions. But in Fatale everything is grim and Grand Guignol. I'll have to spoil it a little in writing about it, but I think it's a book that bears re-reading, if only to admire its audacity.

The protagonist of Fatale is a young, slender woman who makes her living as a hired killer. (I'm not naming her, because she sheds names every time she moves on after a murder.) Unlike the usual hired killer of fiction, people don't seek her out. She wanders from one small city in France to another, edging her way into bourgeois social circles full of people with too much money and time for their own good. In such milieux, there are always folks who want other folks dead. To make a good living, all you have to do is research the territory and pick up on homicidal desires.

In the town of Bléville, however, our protagonist runs into complications of her usual routine. It's not that the town lacks for murderous impulses. It contains only too many. There are the predatory, polluting local manufacturers, the many spouses affairing with other spouses, the unscrupulous rising journalist, etc. etc. Most flamboyantly, there is the unhinged decayed nobleman, the Baron, who spies on the town through telescopes from his home on the heights and knows everybody's secrets.

Clearly the most profitable target is the Baron. Our heroine sets up a sort of Murder-on-the-Orient-Express by proxy, each prominent citizen separately paying her a hefty sum to rub out the offending madman. All she has to do is grab the cash from the drop – she doesn't even have to kill the Baron, who she kind of likes, despite his lunacy. But she simply gets tired: and here her troubles begin.

I'll stop with the spoilers there. Fatale is a short book and not worth summarizing at great length. Its power is less in its plot than in its panache. We are not quite sure why the protagonist chooses her outré career, and not quite sure whether we should root for her. She does the unthinkable: against, but also on behalf of, the unspeakable. But of course, it's the rare story where you don't identify with the protagonist, no matter how vile. You want this woman to win – and then, perhaps, to escape and to knock her life of crime the hell off.

Manchette, Jean-Patrick. Fatale. 1977. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: New York Review Books, 2011. PQ 2673 .A452F313