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'The Mad and the Bad' Is One Helluva Ride

You'll want to investigate some of Jean-Patrick Manchette's zany work before the Colin Firth and Sean Penn "Manchette adaptations" hit the big screen.


The Mad and the Bad

Publisher: New York Review of Books Classics
Length: 172 pages
Format: Paperback
Price: $14.95
Author: Jean-Patrick Manchette
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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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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