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

Troy: Fall of a City. Photo: BBC
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In Troy: Fall of a City, all the men look as if they’re in a Calvin Klein ad

Rachel Cooke reviews Troy and 24 Hours in Police Custody.

In Troy: Fall of a City (BBC One, 9.10pm, 17 February) pretty much all the men look as if they’re appearing in a new Calvin Klein ad. The exception is King Priam (David Threlfall) who, perhaps to suggest his wisdom, favours a kind of gap year uniform: long beads, mirror-work blouses and, if his hair hasn’t been washed for a few days, a head scarf.

Muscly and sweaty and always having hot sex – usually in beds with the Homeric version of high-thread-count sheets, over which some lackey cast rose petals during turn-down service – these Trojan guys really are a ton of fun: as good at conversation as at bringing Spartan queens to orgasm.

Take Paris (Louis Hunter), a character particularly suggestive of the strong whiff of Obsession. Dispatched by his father Priam to the court of King Menelaus (Jonas Armstrong) and his gorgeous, pouting wife, Helen (Bella Dayne, who is going to launch a thousand ships dressed in a high-necked feathered ensemble that brings to mind John Galliano in his pomp), he was certainly ready with the important questions. “How did you two get together?” he enquired, in the same tone you or I might ask friends about Tinder or Guardian Soulmates.

The BBC has begged journalists writing about Troy: Fall of a City to avoid spoilers; apparently, we must think of those coming to these myths “for the first time”. But I’m going to take a chance and assume that New Statesman readers are already well aware that Paris’s diplomatic mission to Sparta is soon to end in disaster, his having pinched Helen right from under Menelaus’s nose. I mean, even I know a bit about the Trojan War, and I went to a comprehensive school where the six embattled souls who wanted to learn Latin had to do so on a landing in their own time (like Menelaus, they knew all about public humiliation). Though in any case, surely Cassandra’s (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) weird hissy fits pretty much give the game away. Paris has only to lift his chiton (that’s a kind of tunic – and yes, I did have to Google it) for his sister to begin shaking like a leaf.

Troy’s writer David Farr (The Night Manager) has said that in this series he is keen to explore the other side of Paris and Helen; he regards their story as one of passion and the breaking of conventions, seeing Helen as a bolter rather than as the victim of an
abduction. I guess this is fair enough: there are several versions of this narrative on which to draw. But if only he had not made it all seem so tediously 21st century.

Helen’s marital unhappiness, for instance, is signalled by her fondness for smoking the ancient Greek equivalent of Valium, as if she was a housewife rather than a queen; and when Paris begs her to leave Menelaus, he speaks not of love or even of desire, but of her freedom, her right to fulfilment. The dialogue is so richly silted with self-help banalities, we might as well be watching a Meghan and Harry biopic as a drama inspired by the greatest of all epic poems. There’s also something exceedingly creepy about its retro, soft-porny direction (by Owen Harris); every time Helen takes a shower, you half expect her to whip out a Flake.

In the opening episode of the shot-in-real-time documentary series 24 Hours in Police Custody (Channel 4, 9pm, 19 February) the perpetrator of the crime – a man was being blackmailed for having visited a prostitute – turned out not only to be a copper, but (get this!) one of the officers on the surveillance team watching the spot where £1,000 had been left as bait. Naturally, this made for astonishing viewing; as DC Gareth Suffling was arrested, I thought at first a mistake had been made. But the real fascination of it for me lay in the fact that as a televisual coup, it was born less of serendipity than of the good and wholly transparent relationship forged between the producers and Bedfordshire Police (the series has been running since 2014). What it proved, quite brilliantly, is that hard-won trust and patience – neither of which are very fashionable qualities in journalism these days – can in the end deliver better results than what we might call a hit and run. Bide your time, programme makers, and the big reveal will be yours. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia