AUGUST 25, 2014
IN THE MIDDLE of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s novel The Mad and the Bad, the two central characters, Julie and Peter, pursued by kidnappers, seek refuge in a department store. Calls for police create a misunderstanding that they are the criminals, misunderstanding creates panic, panic is met with gunfire, and gunfire is responded to by Molotov cocktails, burning the place to the ground and leaving one adversary with “the smell of bacon emanating from his burnt skin.” Cars from a turnoff stop traffic dead to watch the chaos unfold, while Julie and Peter slip into one of the cars and move on to the next calamity that, too, will ignite like impulse but proceed like second nature.
This is the kind of violence for which crime fiction author Jean-Patrick Manchette had a propensity: the kind of violence that erupts onto a complacent peace like a bombarding invader and yet carries itself out with an almost choreographed agility. Manchette was a writer of urgency and cunning, of economy and laconic cool, and of narrative that verges on communiqué. Set within the restricted framework of his genre, those elements clashed more often than they blended. This might seem like a weakness, and it would be for most authors, but Manchette manages it by writing characters whose thoughts, decisions, and very beings are dominated by unmitigated conflict.
“The mystery novel,” Manchette wrote, “is the great moral literature of our era.” He was speaking of noir’s “founding fathers” Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but also, of course, himself. Manchette was a Frenchman and a man of the Left, whose career peak coincided with the limbo between the fall of De Gaulle and the rise of Mitterrand, a France still reeling from May 1968. The consensus among his admirers is that his novels reflect these developments, with stories of corrosive greed and increasingly uncontainable anarchy. Such themes have their secure seat at the table of French popular culture, though Manchette’s presence in English has been more gradual than disruptive.
In 2002, City Lights published translations by Donald Nicholson-Smith of novels Le Petit Bleu de la Côte Ouest (as Three to Kill) and La Position du Tireur Couché (as The Prone Gunman), originally appearing in 1976 and 1981 respectively. This year sees the completion of two more English editions, again by Nicholson-Smith, but published by New York Review of Books Classic imprint. His 1977 novel Fatale appeared in 2011 and 1972’s O dingos, O chateaux! appears this year as The Mad and the Bad. Remaining fairly obscure in the English-speaking world, and in America especially, Manchette lacks a standalone classic among the 10 novels he published in his lifetime, most if not all of them coming in at under 200 pages. Each book currently available is no more or less sufficient as an introduction to Manchette’s style and substance; the NYRB books, however, have the opportunity to show how Manchette developed over the five years that separate them.
In The Mad and the Bad, Michel Hartog is a self-proclaimed architect and philanthropist, whose only demonstrable skill is being lucky enough to inherit a substantial fortune on the death of his brother and sister-in-law. He also inherits their monstrously petulant son, whom raising seems markedly less suitable to Hartog than killing. With the help of an ulcerous English hit man, he concocts an elaborate frame-up of the boy’s nanny, Julie, a former mental patient with a criminal past and violent streak: “She pictured men flirting with her — and her shooting them point blank. I must be in a manic phase, she told herself.” But those aspects that made her so attractive as a patsy prove detrimental to the plan itself, which unravels in gruesome fashion. Julie, now fiercely protective of her charge, but phobic of the police, sets off on a haphazard rampage through the South of France, in search of a safe haven from her bumbling captors that, as far as the reader is led to suspect, might not be what it appears.
Broadly speaking, Manchette sics lowly wretches onto each other with the guiding hand of a man whose vileness is distinguished only by his wealth. Once the reader reaches halfway into the narrative, The Mad and the Bad is less about crime than it is about mayhem. Julie is an effective survivor but compulsively lethal, sometimes taking the lives of innocent (if somewhat surly) people. This is more than can be said about her pursuers, who bring more harm to themselves than anybody else:
He put his gun to his shoulder, aimed for the heart and fired. The muzzle of his rifle being plugged with dirt, the weapon exploded, and the explosion ripped off both hands of the killer as well as his jawbone. He fell flat on his face, dead.
All of this unfolds in 160 pages of terse, rapid prose that offers little respite or breathing room for the reader. This is especially true with Julie’s story, brimming with all manner of anxiety, paranoia, and trauma that no prison or hospital could match. “When I was six,” Julie recalls:
the farmer’s wife I’d been placed with had me locked up for an hour in the main police station to give me a healthy fear of authority. That’s the only thing I have in common with Alfred Hitchcock. Afterwards I went into convulsions.
Caring for the boy may have been the most purpose she’s ever had in life, yet hers is too often a story of damage already done and damage yet to be incurred for it to mean much. Redemption, for Manchette, is a luxury some characters cannot afford: “Later on [Julie] would spend more time in a sanitarium before vanishing into the great wide world.”
Fatale followed five years and six novels after The Mad and the Bad and is nearly half its length. It centers on Aimée Joubert, a killer who travels throughout small towns in France rooting out any hint of corruption. In this instance she comes to the generically — and metaphorically — named Bléville (Wheatville), infiltrating herself into its hedonistic elite inner circle, including captains of the town’s factory, producing canned fish, baby food, and cattle feed, which inadvertently poisons the townspeople; a philandering, limousine leftist doctor; and an eccentric, eternally bitter nobleman. Comparisons to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest are apt, but only on a surface level. Unlike the hired Continental Op, Aimée’s business approach is of a more entrepreneurial bent, bordering on the predatory:
There is always one real fat asshole who wants to kill another. The rest is a question of skill. Worming yourself into the client’s private life. Putting the idea of killing into his head, where in fact it already is. Then offering your services, ideally at a moment of crisis. I don’t tell them I’m a killer. I’m a woman, and they wouldn’t take me seriously. I tell them that I know a killer. Sometimes I let them assume that he is my lover. That makes them jealous. It’s fun.
But the line separating contract from crusade is a faint one as the impressive, if somewhat improbably amassed, body count increases.
At nearly half the length of The Mad and the Bad, Fatale is a beast having undergone severe training compared to its feral, almost rabid predecessor. There is a leanness and focus to it. The chaos is overall more controlled, mostly because it emanates from a source with greater, though not always consistent, control over how it is managed. It is altogether a more riveting, less suffocating read. The differences between the books, however, are subtle compared to how unified they are by Manchette’s style. The word “cool” is tossed around very easily when describing both books. Manchette certainly has that, though comic would do it a greater justice, in style as well as in structure. Through Manchette’s almost telegraphic reporting an acidic wit emerges. This is especially true in Fatale, which is darted with sardonic asides: “Around her on the walls were a host of inscriptions, obscene for the most part. I love sailors with big thighs, a homosexual who loved sailors with big thighs had written.”
In the darkness the young woman was not visible. Had she been visible, she would not have been beautiful to behold; or perhaps she would have been beautiful to behold, depending on one’s taste.
It is comic in another sense in that these stories can just as ably, if not better, be rendered in illustrated panels. Having himself translated The Watchmen into French in 1987, Manchette was a fan of the form, to say the least, and indeed, the City Lights novels have been given the graphic novel treatment by Jacques Tardi for Fantagraphics, appearing in 2009 and 2011, with an adaptation of The Mad and the Bad (as Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell) coming in early 2015.
Though the appraisals included in these books, provided by James Sallis and Jean Echenoz, highlight Manchette’s French attributes — including a seemingly mandatory Guy Debord name-drop — Manchette considered American literature to be the fount of his art. Acceptance in America, even without the Francophilia so prevalent in hipster circles, would not seem entirely unthinkable, at least at first. Gauging the American noir landscape as it is now, the timing of these novels seems off, and may very well have been off for a while now.
Romantic, melodramatic, and believing no idea to be too abstract to do damage over, France and the United States have more in common than anyone in either country today is willing to admit. This is no less true in how Manchette and other authors and filmmakers have fed off of American noir, but Manchette, who championed the Depression-era Old Gods above all else, would find today’s noir utterly alien to his sensibilities. Americans see noir through a lens darkly in the wake not only of Cain, Jim Thompson, and Highsmith, but also of Blue Velvet and Frank Miller. American noir’s morals have given way to the amoral, and in some cases the reactionary. For all the surrealistic, transgressive touches his films have brought to noir themes, David Lynch is not as invested as Manchette was in upending the moral order. It is voyeuristic rather than crusading, preferring to see depravity at a safe distance rather than to force it to the surface and confront it. For Manchette, sex and money were the prime corrosive elements of his world; while they can’t be avoided in American noir either, they are merely dressing over a central void. The classic noir that influenced Manchette became increasingly consigned to paperback ill-repute, becoming a retrospective aesthetic rather than anything of substance, certainly not one conducive to taking on the serious matters Manchette thought it capable of commanding.
Manchette is nothing if not serious, and he does have something to offer English-language readers, yet it lies less in his moral message and more in his method of delivering it. The Mad and the Bad and Fatale both have central characters who are female. They are by no stretch good people; indeed, to even make eye contact with them would seem to spell nothing short of misfortune. They are, nonetheless, fully dimensional, products of a world rather than ornaments to it. This perhaps was trivial to so progressive a writer as Manchette (though maybe less so with Fatale, which has more explicitly feminist allusions), but depictions of female evil are a source of strife in American noir. It can be seen in the debates that permeated around the seemingly bland female characters in True Detective, and in response through the explicitly female-centric noir fiction of Megan Abbott. The challenge to integrate complexly drawn women without certain caveats into stories, noir or otherwise, is like facing down the most stubbornly vital of old habits. Manchette gives us something simpler, however, and perhaps a bit less bleak. He would agree with us that everyone suffers, and that some deserve to suffer more than others, but the impulse, if not the responsibility, to act on it thrives without petty preferences, let alone limits.