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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Write to Kill

Daniel Pennac

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To purchase Write to Kill

Title: Write to Kill
Author: Daniel Pennac
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989 (Eng. 1999)
Length: 277 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Write to Kill - US
Write to Kill - UK
Write to Kill - Canada
La petite marchande de prose - Canada
La petite marchande de prose - France
Sündenbock im Bücherdschungel - Deutschland
La prosivendola - Italia
La pequeña vendedora de prosa - España
  • French title: La petite marchande de prose
  • Translated by Ian Monk

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative and well-written, though it goes a bit overboard

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Independent on Sunday . 1/8/1999 .
The LA Times C- 19/12/1999 Eugen Weber
Time Out . 28/7/1999 Omer Ali
The Times . 24/7/1999 Scott Bradfield
TLS A 23/7/1999 David Coward
VLS A 12/1999 Jesse Berrett

  From the Reviews:
  • "He combines the tradition of the French literary flic with the wild outpourings of a more liberally minded Celine (both men finding inspiration in the gutter)." - Independent on Sunday

  • "Pennac writes entertainingly about a lot of things and monkeys around with what might be called fantastic realism, meaning that what he writes is less realistic than surrealistic. That is probably why French critics, who turn up their noses at run-of-the-mill mysteries, swoon over his literary achievement and affirm him as their top crime fictioneer. The less convincing his situations, the less plausible his plots, the more they praise his idiomatic language, demotic dialogue, evocative slang, burlesque verve. Unfortunately (...) what can amuse in French works less well in English." - Eugen Weber, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(E)ven when in a coma Malaussène's reflections on culpability lead crime readers in directions they have never considered before, so by the time the various plot-twists are untangled, none of it feels too absurd." - Scott Bradfield, The Times

  • "Daniel Pennac's tongue-in-cheek unrealism is fast-paced, stylish and hugely entertaining, a mixture of crime spoof and the stock-in-trade of fairy tale: a sleeper awakened, a good fairy and a happy ending. But Pennac's unfailing good humour is never cosy, for underneath the fun runs a swell of fierce scepticism which rocks the multiple mendacities peddled by authority, vested interests and capitalism in its current imperialist mode. Ian Monk, catching the jokes and matching the argot, has translated Pennac splendidly." - David Coward, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Write to Kill (...) takes theorists' forebodings of "the death of the author" seriously -- and also tosses in jokes about publishing, modern penology, and the mechanisms of celebrity. Its high-octane intellectualism suggests Foucault rewritten by Elmore Leonard, but you don't have to get the theoretical play to get in on the fun." - Jesse Berrett, Voice Literary Supplement

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:

       Daniel Pennac's fictions around the professional scapegoat, Benjamin Malaussène, don't fit comfortably in the contemporary tradition of American and British crime fiction. Pennac's novels are mysteries and thrillers, they are crime fiction, -- but of a peculiar sort. The mystery (or mysteries -- he tends to pile layers of them on, all interrelated) -- tend to be larger than life, often almost surreal. More significantly, the crimes actually often fade into the background (intermittently bursting back on the scene with some excessive violence). Pennac is as concerned with describing atmosphere and day to day life as he is with getting to the root of the particular crime(s) in question.
       Write to Kill is centered in the Parisian district of Belleville, around the household of Malaussène and his siblings and assorted hangers-on. Mother Malaussène has left the brood again (off to Venice with a policeman) and Benjamin is nominally and casually in charge. Fired from his job as department-store scapegoat (see our review of The Scapegoat), he is now employed by the promisingly titled Vendetta Press. His job is again to assuage: here it is not customers but rather disappointed authors whose books have been rejected who he calms. As usual, Pennac does a fine job in these comic scenes. Malaussène is presented as a master-scapegoat once again.
       There is change at the Malaussène household as well: sister Clara is set to marry. The intended groom is, of all things, a prison director. One with progressive ideas, but still ..... The wedding does not go off as planned, due to the first of a number of fairly violent crimes.
       Malaussène is then given an unusual job offer by his boss at the Vendetta Press, Queen Zabo. Vendetta Press publishes the most successful of all authors, a mysterious figure known just as "J.L.Babel" whose books sell hundreds of millions of copies. No one knows his true identity except Queen Zabo. The author is not willing to present himself in public, but feels that it is necessary to put some sort of face to the name. Enter Malaussène, who is to become -- for the public -- J.L.Babel. His "indistinct, malleable appearance" is "just what is required."
       For a tidy cut of the profits Malaussène agrees, and he becomes J.L.B., carefully learning the part, always following the script. When, however, he gets shot at his first public appearance as J.L.Babel it becomes apparent that things are even more complicated than the initial ruse suggested. A spiral of murder and manhunts follows, leading, ultimately, to a fairly clever resolution.
       Write to Kill is again an elaborate novel of interwoven crimes, with healthy doses of social commentary and criticism (and a fair amount about literary and pop culture) thrown in. All presented with a light and often very funny touch. However, Pennac here moves beyond the earlier, simpler novels. The writing is more assured -- less rushed and more careful -- and the comedy less broad. The earlier novels are entertaining but hard to take very seriously. Where he previously managed sections that are solid and touching, with Write to Kill he sustains the quality almost throughout the novel.
       There are a number of clever ideas in the novel, such as the exemplary prison (and its role in the crimes) and J.L.Babel's new (and immensely popular) genre of fiction. The family and local portraits also seem generally more convincing. (Even the annoying pungent dog is mercifully ignored for much of the text -- though replaced by a hard-staring baby). The dialogue isn't just out for constant laughs, and some of the exchanges -- among the police, for example, -- are extremely well done. Unfortunately, Pennac still succumbs to excess.
       There are various asides, from everything from prison reform to literature to medical ethics, most of which are interesting but some (the medical mess in particular) which are pushed to silly and absurd extremes. The messy shootings and the waves of crime are also spread a bit thickly, and by the end one just wants to hear the solution to the mystery.
       There is also an over-recapitulation of previous adventures, especially at the beginning, but at least readers who are unfamiliar with The Scapegoat or The Fairy Gunmother will understand what happened in those novels.
       Pennac did make one marvelous leap in this novel, one that left our hearts racing with joy. In a moment of daring Pennac did the unexpected and almost unimaginable. Suffice it to say that it is Malaussène who narrates all these scapegoat novels, as he does this one, and that Malaussène gets shot fairly early on in this one and that the next chapter is no longer narrated in the first person. Coy Pennac continues to suggest that things are not quite what they seem, and in the end he does disappoint, but for a few high-flying pages he had done the unimaginable. (Tellingly the best parts of the book are those not narrated by Malaussène -- perhaps something for Pennac to consider .....)
       An enjoyable and generally well-crafted book, Write to Kill is a good and thoughtful piece of entertainment, marred only by a few scenes and ideas of silly excess. With less slang slung around Ian Monk's translation also comes across well. Recommended.

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Write to Kill: Reviews: Daniel Pennac: Other books by Daniel Pennac under review: Other books under review of interest:

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About the Author:

       French author Daniel Pennac was born in Casablanca in 1944.

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