Friday, January 05, 2007

Stand-up Booksellers and Prone Gunmen

I was dismayed to read, just before the recent holidays, about the demise of New York City’s Murder Ink bookshop. I grow discouraged by such news, for I adore spending time in bookstores, and losing one is like losing a friend.

But while one Murder Ink shuts its doors, another continues to thrive.

That other store (shown above) happens to be located in Dublin, Ireland, which is where my family and I spent the holiday period. (You might have noticed that I wasn’t posting much for a while, save for a nostalgic piece, celebrating Hergé’s Tintin tales, that just went up on the January Magazine blog.) And along with my other luggage, I carried to Dublin a good portion of my to-be-read pile, which typically grows much faster than I can knock it down. (This is a problem from which all of us in the reviewing world suffer.)

I love Ireland, not only because of its history, but for its authors--from Oscar Wilde to James Joyce, Charles Robert Maturin to Bram Stoker (and their fellow Gothic storytellers), and Ken Bruen to John Connolly. So, whenever I’m in Dublin, I take the opportunity to visit that other Murder Ink. Located downtown on Dawson Street (which runs parallel to Dublin’s busy Grafton Street), quite close to Stephen’s Green, Murder Ink attracts many casual shoppers as well as tourists and writers, who like to drop by unexpectedly and greet the owner Michael Gallaher, if only to thank him for pushing their books. Gallaher, who I’ve known for some years now, is extremely well read, and a terrific raconteur, ready with a memorable story to tell at a moment’s provocation. Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I spent at least a couple of hours talking with him, and he elevated my spirits, telling me that he’d been doing roaring trade in the lead-up to the holiday season, even apologizing that some of his shelves were emptier than usual as he awaited an order from his suppliers.

Good news, indeed.

Also, while I was relaxing in Ireland for two weeks, I discovered a few books worth mentioning, among them The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill, both by the late French novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette. Gunman, published in France a quarter-century ago, was reissued by Serpent’s Tail in November 2006; Three to Kill is due out from the same publisher in February of this year (but I procured an early reading copy). Let me tell you, these two books were the highlights of my winter reading, both brutal and disturbing works, but with an existential European flavor that could only have originated in France.

For a taste, here’s the opening paragraph of The Prone Gunman:
It was winter, and it was dark. Coming down directly from the Arctic, a freezing wind rushed into the Irish Sea, swept through Liverpool, raced across the Cheshire plain (where the cats lowered their trembling ears at the sound of the roaring in the chimneys) and, through the lowered window, struck the eyes of the man sitting in the little Bedford van. The man did not blink. He was tall but not really massive, with a calm face, blue eyes and brown hair. ... An Ortgies automatic pistol with a Redfield silencer rested on his lap.
Many readers will find Manchette’s name unfamiliar. But U.S. novelist James Sallis (Cripple Creek) isn’t among them. In an excellent essay for The Boston Globe, he wrote:
For Manchette and for the generation of writers who followed him, the crime novel is no mere entertainment, but a means to strip bare the failures of society, ripping through veils of appearance, deceit and manipulation to the greed and violence that are the society’s true engines.

Coming from the extreme left (he was an advocate of
Guy Debord’s Situationism), Manchette consistently skewered capitalist society and indicted the media for its emphasis on spectacle. He saw the world as a giant marketplace in which gangs of thugs--be they leftist, terrorist, or socially approved thugs like police and politicians--compete relentlessly, and in which tiny groups of alienated individuals go on trying to cling to the flotsam of their lives. He folds quotations, allusions and parodies of literary writers into his work, alludes constantly to music, painting and philosophy, juxtaposes the vulgar and the precious, jams depictions of quotidian life against scenes of such extreme violence as to call into question the whole of bourgeois--of accepted, apparent--existence.

“He was like an electroshock to the chloroformed country of literature and the French thriller,” [his biographer] Jean Francois Gerault noted. (Please take note of that and.) Elsewhere Gerault suggested that Manchette “had reached a formal perfection that was impossible to surpass.”

Effectively Manchette’s career ran only some eleven years or so. The ten novels were published by Gallimard from 1971-1982. Following this, he worked as a translator (of Ross Thomas, Donald Westlake and Alan Moore among others), as a scenarist for film and TV, as an editor, as reviewer of films and essayist on thrillers and crime fiction. After 1989, treatment of and complications from a pancreatic tumor made work impossible. He died in 1995 in Paris of lung cancer, aged 53.
You can read all of Sallis’ essay here.

If you’ve not already sampled Manchette’s body of work, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of The Prone Gunman, or wait until next month for Three to Kill. You won’t be sorry. And if you ever find yourself in Dublin in search of reading material, stop by Murder Ink. Tell Michael Gallaher that Ali sent you.


Anonymous said...

It was nice to see the note about Jean-Patrick Manchette. I read The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill quite some time before I started my blog, so I have not written extensively about either. But I include The Prone Gunman on a list of favorites in my first post.

Here's part of what I wrote at the time: "His short, grim novels have a certain formal similarity to Jim Thompson's. But Manchette's protagonists are not fortunate enough to die. Rather, they are brought low, chewed up, and spit out, destroyed or disoriented but still alive, by powerful forces who use them to achieve their own ends before discarding them."

He's one of the more unsettling authors I've read.

Tribe said...

Ali: These books kick ass in the best way...Manchette is likely one of the most intellectually-driven crime writers ever. The two books you mention have been out in the States for well over a year now from City Lights Books. If Serpent's Tail is getting to those two now, any chance that they'll re-issue the rest of Manchette's backlist?

Ali Karim said...

Yo Tribe,

Yes, I discovered that the books have been out in the US for a while - I've dropped an email to Pete Ayrton at Serpents Tail to see if he'll translate the rest, but Serpents Tail have merged with Profile

Which has put a little 'hiatus' on things which is a bummer, as Manchette's books are in my opinion the best noir I've read for ages.