In America it was Hammett and Chandler: Hammett who took murder out of the manor houses and gave it back to the people who actually commit it; Chandler who fashioned of bus stations, diners, and cheap hotel rooms, at the frontier’s last raw edge, a mythology specifically American. In France the new maps were drawn by Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942-1995).
When Manchette began to write his novels in the mid-1970s, the French polar had become a still pool of police procedurals and tales of Pigalle lowlife. Manchette wanted to throw in rocks, disturb the calm surface, bring up all the muck beneath—to demonstrate that the crime novel could be (as he said again and again) “the great moral literature of our time.”
For Manchette and the generation of writers who succeeded him, then, these novels became far more than simple entertainment; they became a means of facing society’s failures head on. One after another the curtains will be torn back. Pretense. Deceit. Manipulation. Till there in the small, choked room behind it all we witness society’s true engines—greed and violence—grinding away.
“He was like an electroshock to the chloroformed country of literature and the French thriller,” Jean-François Gérault noted.
Manchette published ten novels with Gallimard from 1971 to 1982. Before and after, he worked as an editor, reviewed movies, wrote scripts for film and TV and numerous essays on thrillers and crime fiction. He also published translations of Ross Thomas, Donald Westlake, Alan Moore, and others—at least thirty books. By 1989, treatment of and complications from a pancreatic tumor made work difficult. He died in 1995 in Paris of lung cancer, aged fifty-three, before completing a new novel, La Princesse du sang (Princess of the Blood), intended to be the first of a five-book cycle covering five decades from the postwar period to the present.
The Mad and the Bad, original title Ô dingos, Ô châteaux!, came early in the game, in 1972, following close upon the prior year’s collaborative Laissez bronzer les cadavres (Corpses in the Sun, with Jean-Pierre Bastid) and solo L’Affaire N’Gustro (The N’Gustro Affair), and won the grand prize for crime fiction in 1973.
The Mad and the Bad’s tale of a young woman and a boy set upon by deadly forces beyond their understanding shows the co-opting of classic noir plots that we see in all Manchette’s novels. In Three to Kill a businessman witnesses a murder and, pursued by the killers, steps away from his ordinary life to turn the killing back on them. In The Prone Gunman a hired killer yearning to give it all up returns catastrophically to his hometown. The pleasure lies in the many ways Manchette twists and turns his story on the spit of plot, how he transforms the expected, how much weight he manages to pack into scenes that remain lean and muscular. Things move fast, almost at a blur—then excruciatingly slow. Sentences are clipped, headlong. Charged language everywhere, sometimes to the point of the incantatory.
Here also are Manchette’s trademark disavowed individuals, ill-fitting stones in societal walls that will crumble at the first wayward blow.
“The nursemaid before you. Completely off her rocker. Fifty if she was a day. And an idiot. What about you? What’s your thing?”
“I don’t understand at all,” said Julie. “My thing? What do you mean?”
“The thing that’s screwy with you.”
“I’m cured,” Julie stated.
“The hell you are!” exclaimed the driver. “The boss’s way of doing good is over the top. He only hires retards. He sets up factories for cripples to work in, can you figure that?”
“Those guys who go around in little motorized wheelchairs? He’s got them working on a production line! In this house it’s the same baloney. The cook is epileptic. The gardener has only one arm, pretty handy for using the shears. His private secretary is blind. His valet suffers from locomotor ataxia—no wonder his meals arrive cold! The snotty brat’s old nanny—well, I told you about her. As for you, you must know yourself.”
“What about you?” asked Julie.
She had taken out a pack of Gauloises and a Criquet lighter. She lit a cigarette and, throwing her head back, blew smoke through her nostrils.
“What about you?” she repeated.
A parade of grotesquerie, dialogue rich in subtext, and a parody of labor in capitalist society—all in less than a page.
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.
For Manchette the world is a giant marketplace in which gangs of thugs—be they leftist, reactionary, terrorist, police, or politicians—compete relentlessly; one in which tiny groups of individuals, “torn to pieces by the enemy and sodomized by [their] own leaders,” stay afloat by clinging to the flotsam. In his work he alludes to and parodies literary writers such as Baudelaire and Stendhal, juxtaposes the vulgar and the precious, enjambs depictions of quotidian life against scenes of such extreme and often implicit violence as to call into question all the myriad fictions of bourgeois, accepted existence. Like Hammett, he affirms that everyone lies; like Rimbaud, that everything we are taught is false.
Manchette revered Chandler and Hammett as founders of the form in which he worked, and in Chandler’s lyrical description from “The Simple Art of Murder” found a world he well recognized:
The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing….
It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.
Though dredged from the same dark sense of purloined promise as Chandler’s, Manchette’s profoundly leftist, distinctly European stance may be something of a problem for American readers. Like many of his generation, Manchette was influenced by the Situationist Guy Debord, whose theories, elaborated in The Society of the Spectacle, were everywhere during France’s 1968 insurrections. Situationists held that capitalism’s overweening successes came only at the expense of increased alienation, social dysfunction, and a general degradation of daily life; that the acquisition, exchange, and consumption of commodities had forcefully supplanted direct experience, creating a kind of life by proxy; and that liberation might be found in fashioning moments that reawakened authentic desires, a sense of adventure, a ransom from dailiness.
Again and again one finds similar ideas in Manchette, here as a loose scaffolding holding story parts together, there like bones poking through broken skin. Manchette’s stories clip along at breakneck speed, breath be damned, skimming over polarized societies and forfeited lives, momentum never flagging. And in that disjunction, lightness of surface supporting the heaviness beneath, Manchette found his voice.
Back in the hills of the rural South where I grew up, squirrel hunters often nailed their game to trees and, with a knife and brute strength, tore the body from the skin in a single hard pull. As a method it was clean, quick, and efficient. The skins stayed behind on the trees, dozens of them, all around cabins and favorite hunting sites, constant reminders.
Books like Manchette’s are those skins.
The Mad and the Bad
by Jean-Patrick Manchette
The man whom Thompson was supposed to kill—a pederast guilty of seducing the son of a businessman—entered his bedroom. As he closed the door behind him, he had time to recoil at the sight of Thompson standing against the wall beside the hinges. Then Thompson stabbed him in the heart with a rigid hacksaw blade mounted on a large cylindrical hilt with a circular sheet-metal guard. While the guard prevented the blood from spurting, Thompson pumped the cylindrical hilt vigorously, and the homosexual’s heart was sliced into two or more pieces. The victim opened his mouth and a single spasm shook him. His rump struck the door and he slumped forward dead. Thompson stepped aside. For the last half hour his stomach cramps had grown almost intolerable. He left the bedroom. No one had seen him enter; no one saw him leave. It was two o’clock in the morning. Thompson had an appointment in Paris at eleven. He made his way on foot to the Perrache railroad station. The cramps had him almost doubled over. The killer resolved to give up his trade. Soon. Every time it was worse. For the last ten hours he had been unable to eat or drink anything. Now that he had killed, hunger gnawed at him in the most repellent way. Eventually he reached the station buffet. He ordered a choucroute and devoured it. He ordered another, which he savored. His stomach had calmed down. His mind likewise: Thompson had just earned a tidy sum of money. It was three in the morning. The killer paid his bill, returned to his gray Rover, which was parked at a meter, and headed for the autoroute A6.
Later on, somewhere between Lyon and Paris, he pulled off into a rest area and snoozed until daybreak.
At eleven in the morning he was prompt for his appointment. His new client wore dark glasses and Thompson smiled at this childishness. Seated in a booth, the two men drank Scottish beer. The new client placed a photograph facedown on the table.
“It’s going to be a bit tricky,” he said. “It will have to look as though…well, I’ll explain. What’s the matter? Aren’t you well?”
Thompson was massaging his belly.
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” he replied.
He turned the photograph over. It was a color snapshot. A half-length portrait of a redheaded boy with a sullen expression.
“Does this bother you?”
“Not at all,” said Thompson.
What bothered him was his stomach. It was starting again. The pain was back.
—Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
The essay by James Sallis appears as the introduction to Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad, to be published on July 15 by New York Review Books in a new translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith.