[15 August 2014]
I came across the work of Jean-Patrick Manchette when I read somewhere that Colin Firth will be appearing in an adaptation of Manchette’s crime novel, Three To Kill. Firth in a crime movie? Sign me up!
And it was nice to consider the possibility of expanding my ravenous crime-novel tastes to include non-English-language writers. Before Manchette, I read both international fiction and crime fiction, but I read very little international crime fiction (not counting British crime fiction, and not counting Jakob Arjouni, whose novels about the detective Kemal Kayankaya will delight you).
If you haven’t yet hopped aboard the crime-fiction train, I highly recommend it. As the indomitable crime-writing master P.D. James has observed in her book, Talking about Detective Fiction, crime novels offer strange, fundamentally conservative pleasures. Though they often deal with gristly images, they uphold the promise that wrongs will be righted, that a solution exists for most narrative problems. So it’s possible to be greatly distressed by a piece of literary fiction in which no one dies—and yet it’s possible, too, to be weirdly reassured by a work of crime fiction in which dozens of characters kick the bucket.
While preparing to write this review, I made a list of novelists who have tried their hand at crime fiction (some more persistently than others)—and so you may want to check out the following names: the aforementioned James and Arjouni, the brilliant and prolific Ruth Rendell, Donna Leon, Ian Rankin, Patricia Highsmith, Joe Lansdale, Stephen King, Laura Lippman, Agatha Christie, Chris Pavone, Tom Franklin, William Kent Krueger, Kate Racculia, Becky Masterman, Tana French, Carolyn Hart, Peter Abrahams, Dorothy Sayers, Tom Bouman, Dorothy Hughes, George Pelecanos, Sara Paretsky, Penelope Fitzgerald (astoundingly! Look at her first novel. The Golden Child), and Robert Galbraith. I have read books by all of these writers and can vouch for their quality—even if, in some cases, that quality is inconsistent.
So where does Manchette fall in this context? Well, in the enlightening but irksome introduction to Manchette’s novel The Mad and the Bad, crime novelist James Sallis informs us that “in America it was Hammett and Chandler: Hammett who took murder out of the manor houses and gave it back to people who actually commit it… In France the new maps were drawn by Jean-Patrick Manchette.”
Why does this quote annoy me? It seems to have a whiff of misogyny. Writers of manor-house murder stories were often women (though certainly not all of them). There seems to be an implicitly gendered comparison between these manor-house writers and the three supposedly salvific male writers Sallis names—Hammett, Chandler, and Manchette.
The reader wants to say, “As if! As if a murder has never occurred in a manor house! As if Manchette’s stories, which involve incredible moments of chaos and coincidence, are really more believable than the mysteries of Christie and Sayers!” One wants to encourage Sallis to retire the Hammett quote, which he seems overly fond of. It appears not only in the Manchette novel, but in the blurb Sallis provided for another volume, entitled Dry Bones in the Valley. Slow down, Mr. Sallis.
Anyway, it seems that, before Manchette, French crime thrillers had become dry and formulaic. I haven’t read these formulaic French thrillers; I’m just constructing an interpretation based on Sallis’s words. Manchette “rescued” French crime fiction from its dustiness and its over-reliance on formulas. Manchette blurred distinctions between good and bad, and he used the genre to criticize capitalism—an idea that few other crime writers seemed to wish to pursue.
At first, I wasn’t really sure where all of this anti-capitalist thinking was announcing itself in Manchette’s text. True, the hunted man in Three to Kill did seem to have a kind of dreary office life that Manchette wished to mock. But where was the political critique in The Mad and the Bad? Then I found what I was looking for.
Mad and Bad is about an alleged “philanthropist” who actually wants to harm the innocent and the defenseless. And I suppose Manchette is saying that this is the way the Western world works. Capitalist governments masquerade as well-intentioned providers of aid, but in fact our politicians really want us to be docile, quite cogs in an oppressive machine. (Manchette would probably like the new movie The Purge: Anarchy, which has some of Manchette’s spirit, particularly in its use of horror tropes, thriller tropes, and Western tropes.
In this new movie, American government officials claim to be our “New Founding Fathers,” and to have our best interests at heart, but really they want to beat down the poor by freeing the rich to go on consequence-free killing raids once per year. The poor can kill, too, but they do not have easy access to the gated compounds and the many killing resources that the rich enjoy. On a related note, Manchette did indeed love movies, and initially thought of his novel-writing career as a way of breaking into film.
I haven’t said much about the plot of The Mad and the Bad, but really the plot is not very important. Each of the three Manchette novels I’ve read has certain reliable elements. The sentences and chapters are short. The action happens very quickly. Climactic events in public places tend to be absurd—but you don’t mind, because Manchette is clearly having so much fun while doing his work.
The protagonists are not friendly heroes you might encounter in a Hollywood/Justin Timberlake vehicle; in fact, if the protagonists are not “bad”, they are almost certainly “mad”. And the chaos that gets described tends to have at least one or two unintended positive consequences. A romantically “stuck” character has a wild, liberating, sexual affair. A cranky kid decides that he actually likes his new governess, once she proves that she can kick some ass.
This volume is the first English-language translation of Manchette’s early novel. However, you can find some of Manchette’s later work already in English—specifically, three other novels have been brought to America, one by New York Review of Books (NYRB) and two by City Lights. And, in addition to Firth, Penn and Idris Elba are also at work on an (unrelated) Manchette film adaptation.
Now, allow me a tangent. God bless the NYRB Classics! These books would all, without exception, have flown under my radar, but NYRB has made me aware by publishing them in fancy, beautiful, paperback editions. Without this line of reissued classics, it’s likely I would not have discovered Barbara Comyns, J.R. Ackerley, Dorothy Baker, and Ivy Compton-Burnett, among other gifted writers.
Keep the NYRB afloat. Pick up a copy of The Mad and the Bad. You’ll fly through it, and you’ll find yourself amused and surprised on more than one occasion.