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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser