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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Three To Kill

Jean-Patrick Manchette

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To purchase Three To Kill

Title: Three To Kill
Author: Jean-Patrick Manchette
Genre: Novel
Written: 1976 (Eng. 2002)
Length: 134 pages
Original in: French
Availability: 3 To Kill - US
Three To Kill - UK
Three To Kill - Canada
Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest - Canada
Three To Kill - India
Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest - France
Westküstenblues - Deutschland
Piccolo blues - Italia
Balada de la costa Oeste - España
  • French title: Le petit bleu de la côte Ouest
  • Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
  • See also Jacques Tardi's comic book version, West Coast Blues; get your copy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk

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Our Assessment:

B+ : ultimately somewhat hurried and slapdash, but parts are very impressive noir

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Review . 4-5/2003 Jennifer Howard
The Guardian . 24/3/2007 Laura Wilson
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2002 James Sallis

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is cold-blooded stuff, and it leaves you feeling a certain chill. For a reader of American noir, accustomed to loners and antiheroes who pulse with life despite their flaws (think Philip Marlowe, drowning a tender and wounded soul in booze and wisecracks), it can be off-putting. Georges Gerfault’s fortunes are deliberately a matter of intellectual rather than emotional interest. Manchette does not want you to feel attached to his protagonist; he offers Georges up as a specimen, and therein lies the peculiarly intellectual pleasure of reading these neo-polars. You’re being asked to study rather than feel empathy for the characters’ fates." - Jennifer Howard, Boston Review

  • "The pace is fast, the action sequences are superb, and the effect is just as striking as it must have been when the book was first published in 1976." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

  • "(T)he novel is brilliantly written, replete with allusions to art, literature, and music, papered with the very texture and furniture of our lives. Manchette is Camus on overdrive, at one and the same time white-hot, ice-cold. He deserves much the same attention." - James Sallis, Review of Contemporary Fiction

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Three To Kill begins with Georges Gerfaut racing on Paris' outer ring road at 145 kilometers per hour, a short introductory chapter that gives a glimpse of the man Georges has become -- though it closes:

The fact that Georges has killed at least two men in the course of the last year is not germane. What is happening now used to happen from time to time.
       The rest of the novel describes how Georges, a businessman working for a subsidiary of ITT, came to have killed these men. It happens because he's a good samaritan: passing a car wreck he helps a man who appears to have been injured in the crash and takes him to hospital. The man turns out to have been shot, but Georges doesn't learn that immediately. He leaves the hospital before anyone can really connect him with the victim (who passes away) -- but the hitmen who shot the man witnessed what Georges did, and it's clear they have to rub him out as well.
       So begins a cat-and-mouse chase, with Georges mystified by the first attack since he has no idea why anyone would be after him. As it happens, he goes on vacation right after the incident on the road, and the first attack takes place there. Georges rushes back to Paris, and soon enough realizes he is caught up in something big and nasty.
       The narrative moves back and forth between Georges and the hitmen -- who are particularly annoyed that he managed to evade them, when their work usually went as smooth as clockwork. When they're closer on his heels again, there's a violent confrontation. Georges escapes, but not unscathed -- a broken foot, most of his possessions gone. Rather than head back home, however, he holes up in the countryside, where the man who took care of his foot invites him to stay with him.
       Georges stays there for quite a while, but the surviving hitman does not give up. Georges takes it easy as long as he can, telling the granddaughter of the man he stayed with:
     "I'll have to make a decision one of these days," he remarked, but he didn't say what decision. "It'll wait. At least till this fog lifts. Let's go and make love, okay ?"
       Of course, the decision won't wait, and instead of him making it it is forced upon him. But, as we know from the opening chapter, Georges is a survivor; the only question is what more does he have to survive -- and what does it do to him.
       Manchette's noir is bloody and brutal, the violence often out of the blue and almost arbitrary; indeed, Georges is pulled into all this entirely arbitrarily, and for the longest time he has no real idea why he is a wanted man. Society is disordered -- at the hospital they barely take note of Georges, immersed in their own world and petty problems -- but the hitmen, and their employer, have a specific code and expectations. No loose ends, for one (with a bit of revenge mixed in, once one of the hitmen loses his life going after Georges). Georges, despite being a businessman and member of the bourgeoisie, with wife and two daughters, and the annual summer vacation on the beach, adapts remarkably quickly -- and works completely outside the system, not involving the police, not seeking traditional help, either for his injury or for his situation. Amusingly, at the end, he eventually also slips relatively easily back into most of his old roles.
       Manchette's lean writing is largely pitch-perfect (if a bit lost in translation), the language crisp and simple, the descriptions wonderfully loaded -- and all of it suggesting his Marxist bent but never overly weighing down the story. Few mystery writers can weave in mentions of the "social relations of production" (or, for that matter, the "categorical imperative") in the effortless way Manchette does, and readers will hardly be tripped up by these references.
       The incidental bits and unexpected asides are often especially good -- or riffs such as when the injured Georges waits for help, leafing through the girlie magazines the illegal Portuguese immigrants who work in the forest have at their camp:
The text was in English and very poor, not just from the literary point of view but even in terms of sexual fantasy. As for the pictures, they were of corpulent women with vulgar, even brutal features. Gerfaut's taste was more sophisticated, inclining him more toward scrawny women with high cheekbones. Inasmuch, that is, as his taste could be said to incline him toward anything at all. He turned to the readers' letters. A single great debate informed the magazine's columns: big breasts versus big asses. To Gerfaut this seemed like a false problem. He was bored silly.
       Or simple descriptions, such as when the injured Georges tries to make his escape into the forest:
In this way he dragged himself up a short incline and reached ground that was broken up and distinctly discouraging: nothing but sharp rises, patches of bare granite, tangled branches brought down by lightening or avalanche, and vertiginous overhangs. From an aesthetic point of view, the landscape was highly romantic. From Gerfaut's point of view, it was absolute shit.
       It's a different kind of cynicism than found in much noir, rarely world-weary. Georges is no hero or sympathetic protagonist, he's simply someone of a specific background, put in a difficult situation, who chooses to assume a specific role -- just as the hitmen and their boss live their lives in a strict and very orderly way (which happens to involve killing a lot of people). "Georges is of his time. And of his space", Manchette insists, and readers are free to read that to be as much of an indictment of 1970s French society as they want.
       Yes, Three To Kill is unevenly paced and ultimately quite slapdash, but it's also remarkably refreshing, Manchette a French Jim Thompson with a political edge to him -- and a sharp (but subdued) sense of humor. So much of the writing displays such almost off-hand facility that it's easy to overlook how penetrating Manchette's eye is, too.
       A very good bit of noir, and an entertaining quick read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 June 2010

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Three To Kill: Reviews: Jean-Patrick Manchette: Other books by Jean-Patrick Manchette under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Jean-Patrick Manchette lived 1942 to 1995.

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