Wednesday 1 December 2021

Book Review: The N'Gustro Affair (1971) by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Jean-Patrick Manchette is one of several French crime writers (Dominique Manotti, Didier Daeninckx, Pascal Garnier) who combine hard-boiled prose and characters with equally savage political and social commentary from a left-wing perspective. It's not a combination often found in Anglo-American crime writing. Julian Rathbone and early Eric Ambler come to mind, but neither were as cold-blooded and forceful as their French brethren. And in the U.S.? I can't think of any authors who fit that mold, with the possible exception of Ross Thomas.

The N'Gustro Affair is a fictionalized account of a political kidnapping and assassination that took place in France in 1965 and involved the Moroccan security services, crooked French cops, and a petty criminal. Manchette makes Henri Butron, a career thug and sociopath, the centre of his novel, which unfolds in two interlocking narratives, one told by Butron through a tape recording he makes before his (unexpected) death, the other observing two African politicians as they listen to Butron's tape. Butron tells his entire life story as one long boast about his scheming, nihilism, and cruelty. There was never a time when he was anything other than a petty monster. From a youth spent in brawls against parties of the left and right, he moves on to porn films and gun running, and finally becomes an unwitting and expendable pawn in an assassination plot. 

Butron is a truly appalling character: boastful, racist, misogynist, sadistic; I could go on and on, but suffice to say no tears are shed when he dies. Manchette has no sympathy for Butron, and doesn't try to explain his maliciousness through psychology. As in his later novels (The Prone Gunman, Fatale), Manchette sees his sociopathic central characters as natural by-products of their toxic political and cultural environment. Butron is the effluvia of a France poisoned by colonial wars and a reactionary petit bourgeois mentality. This also makes him a useful idiot/tool for bigger, more predatory fish. 

Manchette is an uncompromising chronicler of how brutal humanity can be, so much so, in fact, that at points it becomes difficult to stay with the novel. His prose, however, is always sharp and clever, and he never, ever glamorizes or humanizes his heinous characters. What mars this novel is his presentation of the African ringleaders of the conspiracy, which is filled with racist imagery. This can be partly explained by Manchette trying to portray them in as bad a light as Butron, but he does this with, at times, excessive zeal. This isn't Manchette's best novel (that would be Fatale), but it's a good introduction to a French sub-genre of crime fiction that deserves more attention.

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