Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book Notes — French Noir, Blanchette & Capitalism

We found out banks encouraged mortgage applicants to exaggerate their income to qualify for a new home loan. The same bank would collect a bonus for packaging the bad loans and selling them to a company that didn’t know what hit them. Neither did the original loan applicants who were tossed out on the streets. We watched as a major energy corporation forced blackouts up and down the West Coast in order to increase profits, all the while laughing at the havoc they caused. We saw car manufacturers neglect to warn customers about fatal flaws. And cigarette makers testified before Congress that they didn’t know nicotine was addictive. This is the dark side of capitalism — putting the “anything goes” free-market “survival of the fittest” philosophy in play for pay.

This is, in a fashion, a prelude to the story of Aimée, a hard-working entrepreneur, a sharp opportunist and mind-bogglingly good sales person. A rugged individualist, she not only provides a service, she creates the need for the service, which turns out to be a simple, low-overhead operation. After all, how much does a bullet cost? The saving moral grace in Aimée’s case, if there is one, is that she targets only those who also practice the same cold-blooded form of capitalism. This might put her a step above Enron, some auto manufacturers and most financial institutions. Her clever, money-making machinations also make for an interesting read.

The late, leftist French writer of Fatale, Jean-Patrick Manchette is often credited with re-inventing crime fiction just when it was needed and is just as often cited as a true embodiment of Noir fiction. Certainly, it is French and dark. Whether you agree or not about how highly Manchette should be rated, Fatale is not likely to disappoint anyone who enjoys bleak, lean, unsentimental stories told in bleak, lean, unsentimental prose.

Manchette wrote Fatale in 1977. It is one of only three of his novels currently available in English. City Lights (San Francisco’s legendary bookstore and publisher) offered 3 to Kill and The Prone Gunman in English a few years ago. Fatale, just released by the book-publishing arm of the New York Review of Books, may be the least of the three very short novels; but if you like noir, this one, along with the others, belongs on your “must-read” list.

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