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A female assassin in this noir classic

April 12, 2011

I recently signed up for the NYRB subscription book club.  I couldn’t resist a monthly literary surprise arriving in the mail from among the newest titles in the New York Review of Books Classics Series. NYRB Classics are described on their website as, “to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.” I can confirm that, having previously read such unforgettables from their series as A Month in the Country, Stoner and A Meaningful Life.

This month, the first book club selection arrived: Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Published in 1977, this slim, dark novel portrays a female assassin, an attractive manipulator who trains and operates by herself, motivated by the ease with which she can kill for money. She employs strict methodology of fake identity and illusion while she ferrets out human vengeance, greed and anger and then uses it to prosperous advantage.

We witness her at work in an imaginary port town in France where, as Aimée Joubert, she socializes with the moneyed industry owners who become her puppets. Everything falls into place, only Aimée is unable to carry through with her nefarious plans due to a not completely believable emotional moment – I had to re-read it to make sure it was real and not a trick Aimée was playing on her victim. The unexpected about-face leads to her downfall and final scenes of horrendous violence and death. This is not unbearable violence, however. The book is written in an engaging, stark style that spares us from graphic, bloody visuals.

“Aimée delivered a toe kick to his chest; he went quiet and lost consciousness; she bent over him and killed him briskly; then she moved off noiselessly towards the western end of the market area.”

Noir is a genre defined by its cynical, dark, gritty crime where there are no heroes and no redemption, plenty of deceit, and the violence and sex are without emotion. Fatale slides perfectly into that definitive glove. And while noir is not a literary genre I frequent, being gloom-averse, this compact story turned out to be the perfect size as an introduction to its noted French noir author – 91 pages with an informative afterword. I enjoyably polished it off.

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