24 February 2016

Auguste le Breton: Les Racketters: Du rififi à Hambourg (1968)

The story: Joseph Mercier, a Frenchman, has killed a man and escapes to Germany, to Hamburg to be exact, where his devoted friend Freddy lives with his wife and makes his living from the underworld, his immediate boss being a man called the Prince, and Mr Big being Walter, a man of great fortune from dealing in many kinds of things, ammunition being a very lucrative business, and with a one-armed bandit protection racket later proving highly profitable also. Although married with a child Joseph (usually called the Frenchman for the sake of anonymity) falls in love with the Polish prostitute Marleen, who is bound by a kind of contract to her pimp, who demands the exorbitant sum of 100,000 marks from the Frenchman for her release. Amazingly, the Frenchman pays him off and she begins to share her life with him. A number of dead bodies litter the book – including those of Freddy, Walter and Marleen – and in the end the Frenchman makes his way back to France alone, where he will certainly be found to have killed in self defence.

Crime is not my usual literary food, and my initial reaction on reading the book was rather negative, seeing many of the usual stereotypes: the tough guys, macho types who leave the passive girl at home or love them and leave them, do the dirty business, don't flinch on killing – Walter turns out to have lost his balls in the war, so well, he just has to turn out to be a wimp, a big mummy's boy doesn't he?

Then it struck me how the crime novel can easily, and effectively, be used as a catalyst for channeling big themes, such as love, corruption, temptation, friendship, betrayal, revenge, etc. Les Racketters has all of these elements, but there's no happy ending. And there's no hero: how can the Frenchman be a hero when he just leaves his wife and takes up with another woman, then betray not only his new bosses but also his one true friend, whose death he accidentally causes and who dies defending him.

There's more to le Breton than initially meets the eye. He coined the word 'rififi' (meaning 'trouble') for instance, which is included in the Petit Robert, and he also wrote books on slang. He believed that it is pointless to write about places you'd never visited yourself, and he'd been everywhere in the world where his many Rififi books are set. There's even a hint of didacticism in the book: there are several footnotes explaining terms mentioned. I'll probably give him another try next time I find one of his books .

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