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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Out like a light: why bad sleep poses a danger to us all

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim.

At 4.02am on 2 November 1892, near Thirsk railway station in Yorkshire, an express train crashed into a goods train. Ten people were killed and 39 injured. Nearly a century later, at 1.23am on 26 April 1986, the No 4 reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, killing two people instantly and causing multiple deaths from radiation. To see how these seemingly unrelated tragedies are connected requires that we understand biological time.

Our lives are ruled by time, but the alarms that drive us out of bed in the morning or tell us that we are late for a meeting are recently adopted chronometers. Life answers to a more ancient beat, which probably started to tick early in the evolutionary process. Embedded in our genes are the instructions for a biological or “circadian” clock that regulates our sleep patterns, alertness, mood, physical strength, blood pressure, and more.

Normally, we experience a 24-hour pattern of light and dark and this aligns our day to the Earth’s rotation. The clock is then used to anticipate this rotation and fine-tune physiology and behaviour before these conditions change. Temperature, blood pressure and cognitive performance all decline as you wind down to sleep. Before dawn, these processes are slowly reversed in anticipation of the new day.

The daily sleep cycle is the most obvious of these rhythms. While asleep, we don’t eat, drink, make money or have sex, so we have relegated the sleep state to a lowly position on our list of priorities. At best, we tolerate it; at worst, we regard it as an illness in need of a cure. Such attitudes are not only wrong, but dangerous.

Though sleep may involve the suspension of most physical activity, the brain is consolidating memories and solving problems; it co-ordinates the removal of toxins; promotes cell division and tissue repair; and rebuilds metabolic pathways. In short, without sleep, our performance and health deteriorate rapidly.

Our species has declared war on the night and sleep has been the victim. The unintended consequences of cheap electric light are twofold. More light at night, together with forms of entertainment including social media, have eroded our sleep time by as much as two hours every night. On top of this, many of us are trying to sleep at the wrong time. Those with night shifts work when they are sleepy and try to sleep when they are not. The body clock fails to adjust and remains synchronised to the natural light/dark cycle.

Shortened sleep and working against biological time have been linked with many health problems. These include lapses in attention and uncontrollable micro-sleeps; impulsiveness and loss of empathy; memory impairment and reduced creativity; immune suppression; higher risks of Type 2 diabetes, infection, cancer and cardiovascular disease; weight gain; and a susceptibility to depression, anxiety and mood instability.

In our quest for instant gratification, it is unlikely that we will stop doing what we like when we like. However, understanding the consequences of bad sleep will help us to reprioritise sleep. Perhaps, one day, the self-inflicted tired will be viewed with the same contempt as that for smokers huddled outside a building. Employers need to recognise that employees with disrupted sleep will be less productive. Why not introduce more health checks and offer advice to those at risk? As night-shift workers are more likely to have heart disease and Type 2 diabetes and to be obese, firms could provide food that reduces these risks. Finally, technology could be used to alert an individual that they are falling asleep both in the workplace and during the drive home.

So, what happened at Thirsk railway station in 1892 and Chernobyl in 1986? These disasters and others like them were linked to excessive tiredness, people working at the wrong biological time and a breakdown in procedure. James Holmes was the signalman at Thirsk. The day before the crash, he had been awake for 36 hours, caring for his daughter, trying to find a doctor and looking after his grief-stricken wife when the baby died. He reported to the stationmaster that he would be unable to work the next night, but no replacement was sent and he was forced to do his shift. He fell asleep, and he had forgotten that the goods train was on the line when he allowed the express through.

After the crash, Holmes was found guilty of manslaughter but given an absolute discharge. The railway company was blamed for ignoring him, and for failing to use procedures which would have detected that he had fallen asleep.

Russell Foster is Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution