Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Jean-Patrick Machette’s Fatale

If Jean-Patrick Machette’s Fatale represents the height of French noir (this is what the cover tells me) then, hell, I don’t want to read any more. The 90-page novella has its moments – at first there is an appeal to the inscrutable nature of the main character and killer, who we know only as Aimée, and moments verge on the comically absurd – but there is not enough plot or enough coloring of the scene to make this a rewarding read.

Fatale opens with Aimée murdering a man hunting in the woods, then follows her as she travels to her next town, Bléville, refashioning her image on the way. (Changing her hair color seems a standard post-job affair.) The translator’s notes make clear that there’s some meaning to the town’s name, which translates roughly to “Doughville.” Even before arriving Aimée views this town, picked at seeming random, as offering some unique money-making opportunities, a chance for a last big job before she retires. Her relationship with her chosen work and with money are the most interesting things about her character, as when she is traveling to Bléville with the payment from her last job:

She leaned over, still chewing, and opened the briefcase and pulled out fistfuls of banknotes and rubbed them against her sweat-streaked belly and against her breasts and her armpits and between her legs and behind her knees. Tears rolled down her cheeks even as she shook with silent laughter and kept masticating. She bent over to sniff the lukewarm choucroute, and she rubbed banknotes against her lips and teeth and raised her glass and dipped the tip of her nose in the champagne. And here in this luxury compartment of this luxury train her nostrils were assailed at once by the luxurious scent of the champagne and the foul odor of the filthy banknotes and the foul odor of the choucroute, which smelt like piss and sperm. (6-7)

Apart from this, Aimée reads as a dishearteningly one-dimensional character. There’s some reference to an earlier husband and an abusive relationship, but the novella offers no room to explore this history. (Nor is it certain that a novel two or three times the length of Fatale would ever get around to it, Aimée not seeming like a person who cares to reveal herself.) We’re informed that she’s killed seven men before arriving in Bléville, but there’s little to suggest how she came to commit murder for hire. We know only that Aimée doesn’t separate herself from her killings, that she likes to arrive in a town and insinuate herself into the social structure in order to learn who wants who dead; or who, perhaps, most deserves to be dead.

Machette’s vision of Aimée’s world is of one in which only social graces hold people back from killing each other. This allows the action to move quickly, Aimée scarcely arriving in town before finding the affairs and tensions that precede her work, as well as a man who despises the town’s residents as much as she does. The fault here is that Machette’s world, while dark and at times extraordinary, is wholly unbelievable. There is a cartoonish nature to Aimée, the town, the nature of the murders she commits, that is hard to overcome. These things could well make for a novella that is as extraordinary as the oversize world it contains, if only there were a single character in Fatale who reads as more than a broadly-drawn character sketch. Fatale may well be a fine representative of French noir; it’s not, unfortunately, one that makes me want to further explore the genre.

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5 Comments

I have never heard of J-P Marchette before, but France isn’t exactly a breeding ground for noir. USA and Scandinavia are. I don ‘t consider France to be a breeding ground for any interesting literature right now, but it’s another battle :)

If you’re looking for some good european hardboiled/noir, Gunnar Staalesen’s Varg Veum series is pretty cool. If you’re looking for the best representatives of the genre, you should give a try to the likes of Jim Thompson, James Ellroy and Anthony Neil Smith. I’m sure you would like at least one of them.

Oh and Bléville would be translated as “Wheatville”, literally.

Comment by Benoît Lelièvre (@BenoitLelievre)

I was hoping you’d comment since I knew this is your area of expertise. I’ll check those writers out. There were some things I liked about the novella, but as a whole it didn’t add up to much – some of those elements, though, I’d love to explore in other noir novels.

I think the translator went into the wheatville/doughville thing – i read this about a month ago so can’t remember the explanation clearly, but the gist of it was that wheatville is the direct translation and “doughville” gives a better sense of the word for english readers. (?)

Thanks much for the suggestions!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

No problem. I’m happy to help. There are a lot of writers that are using elements of noir to make something that’s greater than the sum of its part. Guys you would appreciate I think. Cormac McCarthy is one of them. Daniel Woodrell, Frank Bill and James Ellroy (I’m so clever, I named him twice), from the top of my head.

Not that I want to promote that American writers “get” it more, but noir has its roots in America and they show a very good understanding of what it is. It started with James M. Cain and it developped into a tradition of its own that peaked in the sixties and struggled through decades since then. I feel we’re at the dawn of a new golden age though. There are many writers that get picked up: Tom Piccirilli, Scott Phillips, Jay Stringer, Vince Zandri, John Rector, Allan Guthrie, Duane Swierczynski, etc. and those guys are really conscious about developing a scene. This historical perspective and tradition doesn’t exist in French noir. Heath Lowrance has written a history of hardboiled/noir if you’re interested. It’s a long but fascinating read.

http://sites.google.com/site/noirfictionguide/

Comment by Benoît Lelièvre (@BenoitLelievre)

Ouch it sounds like French noir is much less exciting than its American counterpart. I can’t say I have read any French noir, but I did read Jim Thompson last year and liked him quite a bit. Compared to this novella, I think there is a lot more excitement in Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. I’d listen to Ben, he definitely knows his stuff.

Comment by Brenna (@LitMusings)

Jim Thompson’s the man (or was). He wrote many novels and I’d say about 75% of them are classics of the genre.

Comment by Benoît Lelièvre (@BenoitLelievre)




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