Hartog — architect, businessman, philanthropist — plucks Julie out of an insane asylum to care for his ward, his 12-year-old orphaned nephew, spoiled brat (or worse — things don't seem quite right with the boy) and heir to the family fortune. On her first day of work, Julie and the boy are kidnapped. Once tranquilizers and alcohol aren't available, Julie's forced to rely on her wits to survive, and she has plenty. She escapes death and her captors, with the boy in tow, only to face more dangers.
Here's a passage I quite liked from late in the novel:
Julie poured herself a bowl of coffee, touched it to her lips and burnt herself. She put the vessel down and left the kitchen. She almost lost her way in the web of corridors and rooms. Then she stepped into Fuentes's room. The failed architect was lying on his back in bed, wearing khaki shorts. Empty beer bottles were strewn across a good half of the room. He had dried beer on his chest. His thoracic hair was sticky with it. He was snoring. Julie contemplated him with commiseration and chagrin. She regretted the fact that he was not a handsome young man and that he had not tried to possess her. She would have struggled, scratched his face no doubt, and in any case men did nothing for her, but, all the same, she regretted it.
This is the second Manchette novel I've read (after Fatale). Both have a female protagonist. There are shades of feminist thinking to their motivations and their competence and self-reliance, but some gratuitous objectification as well. I wish I could find a feminist critique so that I'd know what to think. I know one woman who read Fatale, and she was a bit put off by the violence. A scan of the internet suggests that not many women are interested in Manchette.
Check out His Futile Preoccupations for a closer look at Julie's character.
James Sallis writes in the introduction to this editions
There's much that's quintessentially French about Manchette: his political stance, the stylish hard surface of his prose, his adoption of a "low" or demotic art form to embody abstract ideas. Like any great illusionist, he directs our attention one way as the miraculous happens in another. He tells us a simple story. This occurred. That. But there's bone, there's gristle. Floors give way, and wind heaves its shoulder against the door. His stories of cornered individuals become an indictment of capitalism's excesses, its unchallenged power, its reliance on distraction and spectacle.All true.
Everything happens so fast it's hard to read any of it as social commentary. But it's not much of a stretch to see how Manchette might be considered as a successor to Simenon. In their world, darkness lives in everyone's heart, and everyone is capable of anything. Manchette is credited with launching the neo-polar wave. For me Manchette's style calls to mind Delacorta, who was writing just a few years later (among other things he wrote Diva, which is perhaps better known as a film adaptation).
I am furious with NYRB Classics for divulging a major plot point in the description on the back cover. It's just barely hinted at in the early pages, and not fully confirmed until page 140. I made the mistake of rereading the description a few chapters in — someone had asked me about what I was reading — at which point, all the steam was taken out of the ride, the drive to find out who was behind it all deflated. The novel lost its purpose for me.
Still, something very compelling about Manchette's writing, the feeling that there's more to it than meets the eye. His novels are fully loaded. I'm packing this one away for a reread some day.