Jean-Patrick Manchette was a French crime novelist who wrote 10 novels. He is held in the highest possible regard by his English-speaking audience. To date only two of his novels have been translated. Let me say that again in the off chance that, among my limited readership, a publisher is reading this. Only. Two. Books. To say that crime readers who love the full dark style want more Manchette would be a gross understatement.
West Coast Blues is an adaptation of one of those two novels, the 1976 novel 3 to Kill.
The main character, George Gerfaut, is in a kind of existential malaise. It’s not that his life has no meaning but more like it has leveled out and settled into a routine that includes a wife, children and a good job. One could call it kind of a mid-life crisis, or, to paraphrase Joseph Campbell, it’s like he got to the top of his ladder and realized it was against the wrong wall the whole time. The opening illustrates this as he is circling the highway late at night while an indifferent narrative voice rattles off some cold facts.
How quickly can a pebble become an avalanche? That is one of the questions posed here as Gerfaut commits an act of random kindness that so many of us have done before, coming up on the scene of an accident and stopping to see if they need help. This simple act alters the trajectory of his life. Or does it?
The altered course will take him just about as far away from his life as humanly possible. The things he sees and the acts he commits will be unlike anything he has ever done before. But it’s the ending that is the real kick in the teeth, because it comes back full circle, placing Gerfaut right back where he was in the beginning as if nothing occurred, driving around the same dark highway. This final act isn’t an act of cheap nihilism that leaves the main character unaltered. The impact is felt on such a thematic and fundamental level as to leave no doubt that Gerfaut has been absorbed by a larger force despite recent flailings. Accepting his place becomes an act of resigned finality.
One of the few tender sections in the book is granted to one of the killers who are after Gerfaut, Bastien. When Bastien’s partner is killed, there is a subtle implication of romantic involvement between the two men. Bastien, while on the run, is forced to improvise a service for his fallen partner. Under less-than-ideal circumstances Bastien, as an improvised eulogy, reads from the comic book that his partner always had his nose buried in. As the reading continues he is joined, graveside, by the comic character in what becomes a touching send-off. If this flight of fancy seems whimsical and out of place, trust me, it isn’t.
What does it say about these characters that Gerfaut fucks, fights, and kills and winds up largely unchanged, but the “bad guy” is left fundamentally altered for the remainder of his days by the loss of his friend? Maybe the answer lies in the similarities of these men’s lives and the differences in their reactions to it. If the two hit men are taken as one entity and Gerfaut as another, then it can be said that both camps lead lives of routine. But where Gerfaut is not comfortable in that routine, the two hit men are. So it’s because the two hit men are more comfortable and at ease with their lives that the disruption caused by the death of one of them is felt more. Gerfaut is almost too agitated to be changed.
The art is often crowded but never cluttered. It can actually be a little off-putting at first, but you quickly settle into the style until you don’t even notice its quirks.
West Coast Blues is a brilliant story, and Manchette was a phenomenal writer of the modern world, putting others to shame at times. Just that simple, really. This is a book that can’t be reduced to familiar genre markers. So I happily add my voice to the above stated prayer and hope that others will join us in the comments.