Saturday morning, I finished Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman. While I enjoyed reading it, I’m ambivalent. This one just didn’t grab me. I give it 6.5 out of 10.
The Prone Gunman is an attempt at an “arty” mystery novel. Author Manchette combines graphic violence, a cynical tone, and heavy symbolism (protagonist Martin Terrier pretends to be mute for much of the novel). But it doesn’t come together in a way that makes reading it especially rewarding.
One aspect that is jarring is Manchette’s shift from matter-of-fact, blow-by-blow narration to graphic violence. He doesn’t build any suspense in regard to the “action” and treats it as though he’s describing a trip to mall –
“At the discrete sound of these shots, the redhead turned. Terrier also turned, and they found themselves face to face just as Dubofsky’s head, which was split open, full of holes, and shattered like the shell of a hard-boiled egg, hit the sidewalk with a squishy sound. Terrier took two steps forward, extended his arm, put the silencer against the girl’s heart, and pressed the trigger once. The girl flew back, her intestines emptying noisily, and fell dead on her back. Terrier got back in the Bedford and left” (p. 5).
While The Prone Gunman does not have Elmore Leonard’s amused tone, the abrupt, clumsy shifts to graphic violence remind me of flaw that I find in many in many of Leonard’s (otherwise well-crafted) novels.
Characters – It’s Terrier’s Show
Terrier is the lone, well-drawn character in the novel. This isn’t meant as a criticism. The 151 pages do not allow in-depth portraits of anyone else. For me, The Prone Gunman centers on revealing Terrier; the action and intrigue serve only to further this purpose. It is in this aspect that the novel is strongest. Manchette continues to fill in his portrait of Terrier until the final page – and it’s a rewarding journey.
The other characters can seem shallow. Anne Freux – the woman for whom Manchette pined during his ten years away from home – is unsympathetic, unappealing. She is beautiful, a heavy cognac drinker, and shows initiative only in regard to finding men to help her fulfill her need for excitement. Here is Anne’s reaction when Martin catches her with another man –
“Idiot!… Just tell me, what did you think? Did you think that I was going to wait ten years? Do you think I’m going to wait ten more years? Do you think there was only Felix [her husband], before? Do you take me for some brainless little porcelain doll? What do you take me for? I’m sick and tired of this. Cretin! Fag!” (P. 100).
Feminists won’t be happy with Manchette’s depiction of Anne, though she isn’t any worse than are most of the men in The Prone Gunman.
The Narrative & The Prose
The plot is only OK. Again, at 151 pages, Manchette didn’t allow himself a lot of space to develop subplots. He does a nice job in describing the cold France through which Terrier travels. Also, his direct, succinct style is well suited to describing characters in just a few words –
“The caretaker called himself Maubert. He must have been a few years older than Terrier – perhaps thirty-five. He was big and muscular, with a thick head of blond hair parted on the side and a thick blond mustache on a narrow face with a long, thin nose. His eyes were strongly slanted and a little too close together. This skin on his face and hands were tanned and weather-beaten. He always wore wide-wale corduroy trousers and plaid flannel shirts. He looked like an advertisement for American cigarettes” (p. 91).
In the end, there’s nothing wrong with The Prone Gunman. Manchette does enough things well to keep the pages turning. But I can’t give the book more than a lukewarm recommendation.