When Jean-Patrick Manchette was asked about his first encounter with detective fiction, he mentioned a scene from Black Wings Has My Angel by the American writer Elliott Chaze. Originally published in 1953, this obscure lovers-on-the-run thriller was only available, until recently, in French translation.
She was sitting on the floor, naked, in a skitter of green bills … scooping up handfuls of the green money and dropping it on top of her head so that it came sliding down along the cream-coloured hair, slipping down along her shoulders and body. She was making a noise I never heard come out of a human being. It was a scream that was a whisper and a laugh that was a cry. Over and over. The noise and the scooping. The slippery, sliding bills against the rigid body.
Decades later, Manchette claimed this was the ‘primal scene’ in his development as a polareux – a lover of crime fiction. His novel Fatale (1977) reproduces it in the scene where the protagonist, Aimée, dines alone in her sleeping car compartment:
She leaned over, still chewing, and opened the briefcase and pulled out fistfuls of banknotes and rubbed them against her sweat-streaked belly and against her breasts and her armpits and between her legs and behind her knees. Tears rolled down her cheeks even as she shook with silent laughter and kept masticating. She bent over to sniff the lukewarm choucroute, and she rubbed bank notes against her lips and teeth and raised her glass and dipped the tip of her nose in the champagne. And here in this luxury compartment of this luxury train her nostrils were assailed at once by the luxurious scent of the champagne and the foul odour of the filthy banknotes, and the foul odour of the choucroute, which smelt like piss and sperm.
Manchette pushes the psychosexual fetishisation of money even further than Chaze; the repetition of the words ‘luxury’ and ‘foul’ gives the scene a sense of simultaneous satiation and revulsion, typical of his writing. Reworking the femme fatale trope, Manchette creates a heroine alive to the lure and stench of wealth; one who conveys the murderous desire of capital to eliminate all competition.
Born in 1942, Manchette grew up during France’s colonial war against Algeria and joined the Communist Party as a teenager. His youthful activism prompted him to attempt a politicisation of the noir, which he claimed had the potential to be ‘the great moral literature of our time. Indeed … it is the most suitable form to expose and condemn the evil at the heart of our capitalist system.’ Manchette thought he could expose the hypocrisies and corruption of French society if he channelled and reworked the realism Chandler and Hammett had brought to mid-century American pulp fiction. In his introduction to Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad, James Sallis quotes Chandler on the ‘realist in murder’, who
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 finger-man 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 money-making.
When Manchette began writing crime novels in the late 1960s, the polar (a slangy truncation of roman policier) was a straightforward procedural, spiced up with tales of small-time gangster lowlife. He took what Didier Daeninckx, a fellow noirist, described as a scorned genre, which ‘in the 1960s was right wing, even extreme right wing’, and introduced to it a political and social radicalism. The prolific Manchette, whose work also includes essays, translations, film criticism, editing and screenwriting, wrote ten crime novels between 1971 and 1981, which, apart from Fatale, were all published in Gallimard’s Série Noire. His first attempt at a néo-polar, as his variation came to be known, The N’Gustro Affair (1971), is based on the kidnapping of Mehdi Ben Barka, an exiled Moroccan politician and critic of French imperialism who was seized by two French vice squad cops outside Brasserie Lipp in 1965 and never seen again. Manchette opted for a modernist, fragmented structure, telescoping the whole conspiracy into a single night. The main narrator, Henri Butron, a petty thief and accomplice to the kidnappers, records his life story on a tape which is played by Marshal Oufiri, an African minister of justice inducted by the French into a murderous form of rule. Manchette creates a Brechtian distancing effect by describing Butron’s death in the first pages:
The bullet pierces his heart and exits his back beneath the left shoulder blade, leaving a hole the size of a tomato; tissue and blood splatter the scratched-up wall; Butron’s heart has exploded. His head bangs into the wall and he bounces forward, landing flat on his face on the carpet. His excrement continues to leave his body for three or four seconds after he is dead.
The rest of the novel is a dead man talking. Oufiri, who is busy choosing weapons and preparing to deal with the abducted ‘package’ hanging upside down in the basement, hardly pays attention to the tape. The N’Gustro Affair is a recitation of car thefts, assaults with bicycle chains, acts of random thuggery and casual sex. Manchette stresses the sadomasochism of this ‘Proud Boy’ who enjoys being beaten up by the police. A suburban Meursault, who farts at his mother’s funeral and parades his racism, Butron is blind to his own fate. And, despite his declared rebelliousness, he remains the embodiment of French bourgeois values.
As well as Hammett and Chandler, the novel draws on 1940s film noir (the narrative flashback in Otto Preminger’s Laura, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, the recorded confession in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity). There’s also a nod to Camus’s self-confessing narrator in The Fall. In the context of the French crime novel, however, it appeared wildly original. Instead of sub-Maigret detectives propping up an unchanging social order, Manchette attacks de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic for its secret violence and worship of consumerism. Every character is dehumanised, the product of an unmoored society. The N’Gustro Affair observes with amused detachment that extreme violence is a result of the deep contradictions in French society. But Manchette doesn’t suggest that anything will change. Butron’s posthumous monologue, which reveals the conspiracy, will only ever be heard by the homicidal justice minister.
His next book, Ô dingos, ô chateaux! (1972), translated as The Mad and the Bad, extended this sense of the world as a closed circle of violence and power. A young woman and a boy, Julie and Peter, attacked by mysterious assailants, have to run for their lives: a classic noir plot (a lover of jazz, Manchette likes to riff on the standards). He switches pace between scenes, speeding up the action until it’s a surreal blur or suspending it, leaving characters lost in isolation. Hired as a nanny by Hartog, a billionaire self-proclaimed philanthropist, Julie finds that she’s one of his collection of misfits:
‘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 motorised wheelchairs? He’s got them working on a production line. The cook is epileptic. The gardener has only one arm, pretty handy for using the shears. His private secretary is blind … As for you, you must know yourself.’
This caricature of the deformed nature of labour under capitalism becomes the axis of the plot. Hartog claims he’s a visionary businessman, but he inherited his wealth from his dead brother and sister-in-law. His nephew Peter is a brat, and Hartog decides it would be easier to get rid of him. He conspires to have Peter killed by hiring the mentally ill (and thus easy to frame) Julie as a nanny. But Julie’s madness, which puts her beyond societal norms, enables her to fight back. The qualities that make her a perfect fall guy – instability and a propensity for violence – help her and Peter to survive.
Manchette’s thinking and practice as a writer was influenced by the Situationist movement. Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) argued that late capitalism had made all relationships transactional, reducing life to a spectacle in which workers had become mere consumers. To combat the ways in which commodity exchange and consumption had supplanted direct experience, the Situationists sought moments that could reawaken authentic desire. To do this it was necessary to construct situations that disrupted the ordinary, that jolted people out of their normal ways of thinking and being. The Situationist notions of dérive (an unexpected act or encounter) and détournement (turning events or images back on themselves) are in evidence throughout Manchette’s fiction. The Mad and the Bad exploits the dérive in a climactic scene set in a supermarket. The dark comic violence of the hitmen panics the customers and forces the shop assistants out of their stupor.
Coco watched fragments of plastic toys spraying into the air along the path of his bullet. He was trembling. In his hand was an old Colt revolver, solid, crude, and with a tendency to shoot to the right. For a split second, he caught sight of Julie and Peter down an aisle and he fired again, winging a carton of laundry detergent.
The place is burned to the ground; one of the killers has ‘the smell of burned bacon emanating from his skin’. While cars stop to look at the carnage, Julie and Peter slip away. Violence, choreographed with energy and black comedy, shatters normality. The assassins are so useless they only manage to kill themselves: ‘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.’
Manchette pushes dérive and détournement to the point of absurdity. He wants his néo-polars to subvert the framework and plausibility of the noir, to let different tonal elements clash. Le Petit Bleu de la Côte Ouest (1976), translated as Three to Kill, uses this aesthetic to undermine its own protagonist. It opens with Georges speeding round Paris at 3 a.m., juiced on bourbon and barbiturates and listening to West Coast jazz:
The combined effect on him has not been drowsiness but a tense euphoria that threatens at any moment to change into anger or else a vaguely Chekhovian and essentially bitter melancholy, not a very valiant or interesting feeling … The reason Georges is barrelling along the outer ring road, with diminished reflexes, listening to this particular music, must be sought first and foremost in the position occupied by Georges in the social relations of production.
Returning from a business trip, he arrives on the scene of an accident and takes a badly injured man to hospital. But the accident is a botched hit, and the two inept killers are unhappy about his intervention. They track him to the seaside town where he’s on holiday with his wife (‘a superb and horrible mare of a woman’) and his ‘little girls’ (seen as appendages) and try to eliminate him when he goes for a swim.
He got his face above the water. He was struck on the top of the head and the temple and forced back under once more. He had barely been able to gasp a little air. He had been vouchsafed a brief water-streaked vision of the children, the giggling adolescent girls, the ball players and the black African. An eruption of laughter, shouting and ocean spray (and a guy braying hysterically – ‘Pass, Roger, pass!’). A whole tiny universe oblivious to the fact that Georges Gerfaut was being murdered!
He fights them off and flees. Life on the lam seems more bearable than his conventional former life. For a moment he feels free: ‘I can make whatever I want of my existence.’ But, distancing the reader, Manchette asks if Georges’s life-or-death struggle has changed him. The novel closes its circle:
Once in a dubious context, he lived through an exciting and bloody adventure; after which, all he could think of to do was to return to the fold. And now, in the fold, he waits. If at this moment, without leaving the fold, Georges is racing around Paris at 145 kilometres per hour, this proves nothing beyond the fact that Georges is of his time. And of his space.
Most of Manchette’s protagonists are more permanently isolated and excluded, viewing love and family as remote, foreign institutions. In Morgue pleine (1973) and Que d’os! (1976), translated as No Room at the Morgue and It’s Raining Bones, Eugène Tarpon, Manchette’s version of the down-at-heel private eye, makes Marlowe look upbeat. Tarpon is ‘a man broken by alcohol and regrets’, who left the police after killing a protester at a demonstration. Manchette gives no access to Tarpon’s feelings, while letting other characters sneer at his guilt. Even the cops despise him for his liberal weakness.
Manchette’s most alienated characters are the anarchists in Nada (1972), a reworking of the caper novel. The Nada group, which kidnaps the US ambassador, has only five members: Buenaventura Diaz, a revolutionary whose militancy is revenge for his father’s death in the Spanish Civil War; André Épaulard, an ex-communist Resistance member, who never adjusted to peace and is now a gunrunner; Marcel Treuffais, a disillusioned philosophy teacher and the group’s intellectual; a drunk getaway driver, D’Arcy, and a lonely waiter, Meyer. Nada satirises the vanguardist splinter groups that remained full of revolutionary fervour, even after the failure of May 1968. In her introduction to the NYRB edition, Lucy Sante mentions that Manchette wrote in his diary that his wife, Mélissa, had suggested Nada’s characters were positive models. He disagreed. ‘Politically, they are a public hazard, a true catastrophe for the revolutionary movement. The collapse of leftism into terrorism is the collapse of the revolution into spectacle.’ Diaz eventually reaches the same conclusion: ‘Leftist terrorism and state terrorism, even if their motivations cannot be compared, are the two jaws of … the same mug’s game … The desperado is a commodity.’
In contrast to Nada’s abundance of slogans and manifestos, Fatale doesn’t contain any overt ideological statements, but Aimée’s project is a frontal attack on the rich and powerful:
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.
Nearly all the action occurs in Bléville – which translates as ‘town of wheat’. The French use blé much as we use dough: Bléville is the ‘place of money’. There’s also a suggestion of straw men ready to be cut down or reaped. ‘Keep Your Town Clean’ is inscribed on municipal property all over Bléville, which is filthy, teeming with corruption (the local canning factory owners are hiding the fact that their products have poisoned people). Even by Manchette’s standards the body count is high. Aimée kills seven men, not including her husband, before she arrives in Bléville. There she disposes of six more. Her victims are picked from the bourgeoisie and she plans and executes her murders with variety and precision. She repels male advances with amused contempt, changing her appearance, name and opinions to fit each new role. Manchette doesn’t explain her actions, restricting himself to descriptions of what she does, how she holds herself and the way she talks.
Fatale should be read in relation to La Position du tireur couché (1981), translated as The Gunman, Manchette’s final néo-polar, whose protagonist is also an assassin. Martin Terrier is a contract killer who works for ‘the company’. The book’s title indicates Terrier’s preferred method of killing – couché or ‘prone’ – but also hints at a vulnerability. In Fatale, Manchette uses Aimée’s femininity to challenge the genre’s hypermasculinity; in The Gunman, he lets Terrier unravel mentally and physically. Starting out as a stereotypical man of action, Terrier resembles Richard Stark’s protagonist Parker, whose qualities Manchette listed in his diary: ‘L’insensibilité, la brutalité, l’obstination, la capacité professionnelle, la force. Parker est un sauvage.’ His emotions range from tensing his lips to grunting. His sadism is displayed when he ambushes a young man who is tailing him. The man is pistol-whipped, hit on the head, thrown against a car and kicked in the spleen. Terrier then puts a gun to his throat, threatens to burn his eye out with a lighter and, once he has the information he wants, shoots him.
Terrier was recruited to ‘the company’ because of his quick reactions when killing a 13-year-old boy soldier. Manchette gives Faulques, Terrier’s financial adviser, the name of a real soldier infamous for his defence of torture in the Algerian War (Manchette indulges in an authorial revenge fantasy here when Faulques is found hanged and caked in his own shit). The Gunman is Manchette’s most complex expression of his hatred of capitalist violence. He examines the way the Western superhero fantasy underpins the politics of the thriller genre. He leaves the purpose of Terrier’s killings and the nature of the company vague. Is he working for the KGB, the CIA, or organised crime? Like us, Terrier hasn’t a clue. He just wants to make enough money to quit, to return to the town where he was despised for being poor (his father is a brain-damaged waiter) and reclaim Anne, his high-school sweetheart, who promised to wait for him. He wants to avenge the class prejudice he has suffered – ‘I will kill them, I will drag them through the shit, I will make them eat shit’ – but his return descends into black comedy. Anne has become a drunk sex addict, bored senseless and married to money. Terrier’s hard-boiled laconic masculinity ends in professional and sexual impotence. Unable to kill, he’s useless to the company, a joke just like his father. The final image is of him alone in bed, assuming his firing position while he sleeps:
And sometimes this happens: it’s winter, and it’s dark. Coming down directly from the Arctic, a freezing wind rushes into the Irish Sea, sweeps through Liverpool, races across the Cheshire plain … this freezing wind crosses England … and comes knocking directly on the windowpanes of Martin Terrier’s small apartment, but these windows do not vibrate, and this wind has no force. On such nights, Terrier sleeps quietly. In his sleep, he has just assumed the prone firing position.
This seems to recall Chandler’s story ‘Red Wind’ (‘There was a desert wind blowing that night’); it also, like Three to Kill, circles back to the start of the novel. At the beginning, Terrier is awake, ‘his upper body erect’, the wind ‘roars in the chimneys’. At the end, he sleeps like a lamb; the wind howls, but ‘has no force’. In Fatale, Aimée drives through the suburbs at 4 a.m.: ‘The workers were sleeping, FOR JUST A WHILE LONGER.’ Will the proletariat ever rise from its slumber, its ‘prone position’? Both Aimée and Terrier hurtle towards their demise, but compared to his mute submission, her end is affirming. Manchette dedicated Fatale ‘à ma bien-aimée’ (‘to my beloved’) and always refers to his heroine as Aimée, despite her many aliases. She’s the beloved, the one who is desired. Fatale’s last words are an exhortation from Sade’s The Story of Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded: ‘SENSUAL WOMEN, PHILOSOPHICALLY MINDED WOMEN, IT IS TO YOU THAT I ADDRESS MYSELF.’ La Princesse du sang (translated as Ivory Pearl), his last novel, which he began writing almost a decade after the néo-polars and which was left unfinished at his death in 1995, features just such a woman, unconstrained by bourgeois morality and ready to fight.