Paris at twilight. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
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French revolutions: the eerie prescience of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s detective fiction

An attentive reader of Marx, Herbert Marcuse and Guy Debord, Manchette used his novels to offer diagnoses of societal ills.

The Mad and the Bad
Jean-Patrick Manchette. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
NYRB Classics, 184pp, $14.95

Fatale
Jean-Patrick Manchette. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
Serpent’s Tail, 98pp, £8.99

The Gunman
Jean-Patrick Manchette. Translated by James Brook
Serpent’s Tail, 154pp, £7.99

The tense mood of Paris following the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks echoes that of the French capital in the 1960s. Then, too, the city was marked by both the reality and the nervous anticipation of violence. That decade opened under the shadow of a colonial war with Algeria and closed with the street riots of May 1968. It was a period when many had their political consciousness shaped, including Jean-Patrick Manchette, growing up in the Paris suburbs. Manchette, an erstwhile contributor to Charlie Hebdo, started the decade as a committed leftist activist and finished it equally dedicated to change but having abandoned direct action for the more oblique tool of the detective novel, channelling 1960s anti-authoritarianism through his inventive approach to genre fiction.

Over the next two decades, Manchette emerged as a distinctive voice in French writing for his socially attuned and stylish, swaggering novels. In addition to his columns for Charlie, he had a prolific career as a screenwriter and translator but he is best known for his uncompromising fiction. After his death from cancer in 1995, Manchette is still cited by heavyweights from Jean Echenoz to Michel Houellebecq for his fusion of radical politics with taut plotting but is little read in the English-speaking world.

This looks likely to change following the reissue in translation of three viscerally enjoyable novels: The Mad and the Bad, Fatale and The Gunman. The last of these has also been adapted into a film by Pierre Morel, starring Sean Penn and Javier Bardem. Three to Kill, starring Colin Firth, in advanced movie development, is also based on a Manchette book.

An attentive reader of Marx, Herbert Marcuse and Guy Debord, Manchette used his novels to offer diagnoses of contemporary societal ills. He rejected physical violence but his writing is brutal: a character has a blade plunged into his heart on the first page of one book. He used the detective story as an assault weapon to draw the reader’s attention to the state of the world or as a channel for “violent social intervention”.

When they were first published in the 1970s and early 1980s, when French detective fiction was largely concerned with conservative tales of neutralised subversion and restored order, Manchette’s novels came as a shock. Influenced by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, he evokes a recognisably more ambiguous contemporary world, in which bad guys are as likely to be cops, capitalists or the clergy as lurking in the sleazy Pigalle shadows. His protagonists are liminal figures: the alienated, the mentally disturbed or, as with the average executive of Three to Kill, ordinary people caught up in circumstances beyond their control. For Manchette, like Debord, it is the upper echelons rather than the underworld that are viewed with most suspicion.

Such suspicion pervades The Mad and the Bad, which tells the story of the wealthy architect Michel Hartog. Following a family bereavement, he is awarded guardianship of his nephew, Peter. Nonplussed by this arrival, Hartog employs the beautiful Julie – recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital – as the child’s nanny. Quickly, the pair are the focus of a kidnapping led by the psychotic Thompson, whose bloodlust drives him to eat living animals. Julie, however, is made of tough stuff and the bulk of the novel recounts the pair’s flight from the killer and his bumbling henchmen.

The tension never lets up but Manchette’s main skill lies in how his plots subtly extend to shrewd social analysis. The Mad and the Bad becomes a consideration of contemporary “madness” and “badness” that points out the pernicious influence of money on morality and mental well-being and, pre-empting the psychologist Oliver James’s work on “selfish capitalism”, it explores a relationship between commodity fetishism and illness. This is highlighted by one of the book’s cinematic set pieces: a shoot-out in the aisles of a supermarket that eerily prefigures the Hyper Cacher siege. An orgy of consumerism is transformed into one of bloody destruction or, as Manchette describes it, “a madhouse”. Ironically, it is the mentally ill Julie – a poor outsider, a former patient at the more conventional kind of “madhouse” – who is best adapted to survive.

The Gunman is just as brutal and similarly politically and morally engaged. A near-first-person narrative technique borrowed from Hammett draws the reader close to Martin Terrier – but never close enough to know what is going on behind his calculating blue eyes. Terrier is a soldier-turned-hitman working for a shadowy organisation known as “the Company”. He wants to retire but his handler, the shadowy American Cox, leaves him with no option but to take one final high-profile job. Terrier kills “only for the money”. The son of a scrap metal merchant, he has a chip on his shoulder, having been shunned by the family of his childhood sweetheart because of his poor social standing. Again, Manchette showcases the noxious influence of cash.

Aimée, the hit woman heroine of Fatale, is, like Terrier, ruled by an ambiguous mix of mercantile and moral preoccupations. In the corrupt, middle-class Bléville (“Dough Town”), she launches into a series of assassinations, taking out industrialists, doctors and engineers. It’s hard not to share Manchette’s glee in orchestrating the systematic destruction of la bourgeoisie.

For all their politics, Manchette’s books are great, anarchic fun. His prose, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith and James Brook, is as precise as a sniper’s bullet, often cased in black irony. In the supermarket shoot-out of The Mad and the Bad, one of Thompson’s goons is set alight: “His legs were frying and he caught the smell of bacon emanating from his burnt skin.” Ultimately, we are all consumable products in Manchette’s world.

His descriptions of dress and decor add a pleasing note of 1970s Gallic kitsch: Thompson stalks his prey in a fetching “white turtleneck and an oak-brown sports suit”. Striking, too, is Manchette’s obsessive attention to consumer brands. Guns and cars become Colts and 2CVs and the novels are filtered through a haze of Gitanes smoke, strong booze and classic jazz.

Despite their period touches, these novels pack an intense contemporary punch. Whether the pro-Charlie street mobilisations throughout France will inspire a wave of writers whose critique is as trenchant and as readable as that of Manchette remains to be seen. 

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times