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The Boston Globe: A Reading Life

Jean-Patrick Manchette: Masterworks of murder most French

Listen: Warn your children and the weak of heart. There is meat here. There is gristle. There is bone.

If they're about anything at all beyond mere entertainment, the arts are about amazement and recognition. Certain paintings, poems, books and music seem somehow to be in our blood, braided into the DNA: from our first encounter they're a part of us. That's precisely how I felt upon initially hearing Mozart's horn concerti and the blues or, years later, Cajun music, or when I fetched up on those first lines of Apollinaire, Cendrars, Queneau.

That's the way crime fiction was for me, too: a crucial part of my intellectual history, amazingly a familiar part, from the very moment we collided. I'll blather on about mysteries being the urban crime fiction if you put up with it, but eventually, like any good hunting dog, I'll come to point.

These days, the game in the bush tends to be Jean-Patrick Manchette, whose work finally is becoming available to English-language readers.

Each era, I suspect, fumbles its way to a distinctive popular voice, some form uniquely suited to the time's self-image, deeper needs and anxieties. Victorian England had its penny dreadfuls, the U.S. in the placcid Fifties had those subterranean original paperbacks by such as Richard Matheson, David Goodis and Jim Thompson. Increasingly I've come to wonder if the thriller — massive engines set in motion and grinding on far beyond our tiny lives and ken, provisional realities imploding page by page, horizontal rather than vertical thrust — may not best define and serve our time.

In France, which long ago embraced American crime fiction, thrillers are referred to as polars. And in France the godfather and wizard of polars is Jean-Patrick Manchette.

Much about Manchette seems quintessentially French: the stylish glistening surface of his prose, his objectivist method, his adoption of a "low" art form to embody abstract ideas. This goes far towards explaining why he remains virtually unknown and to this point untranslated in the U.S., while all about Europe, having salvaged the French crime novel from the bog of police procedurals and colorful tales of Pigalle lowlife into which it had sunk, he's a massive figure.

"The crime novel," he claimed, "is the great moral literature of our time" — shortly before he set about proving it.

City Lights earlier this year offered a fine translation of the first of Manchette's stream of ten great novels, 3 to Kill. His last, The Prone Gunman, should be out about the time this column appears. Both are beautifully translated, the former by Donald Nicholson-Smith, the latter by James Brook. Nicholson-Smith's translation of Thierry Jonquet's Mygale will appear later this fall.

For Manchette and for the generation of writers who followed him, the crime novel is no mere entertainment, but a means to strip bare the failures of society, ripping through veils of appearance, deceit and manipulation to the greed and violence that are the society's true engines.

Coming from the extreme left (he was an advocate of Guy Debord's Situationism), Manchette consistently skewered capitalist society and indicted the media for its emphasis on spectacle. He saw the world as a giant marketplace in which gangs of thugs — be they leftist, terrorist, or socially approved thugs like police and politicians — compete relentlessly, and in which tiny groups of alienated individuals go on trying to cling to the flotsam of their lives. He folds quotations, allusions and parodies of literary writers into his work, alludes constantly to music, painting and philosophy, juxtaposes the vulgar and the precious, jams depictions of quotidian life against scenes of such extreme violence as to call into question the whole of bourgeois — of accepted, apparent — existence.

"He was like an electroshock to the chloroformed country of literature and the French thriller," Jean Francois Gerault noted. (Please take note of that and.) Elsewhere Gerault suggested that Manchette "had reached a formal perfection that was impossible to surpass."

Effectively Manchette's career ran only some eleven years or so. The ten novels were published by Gallimard from 1971-1982. Following this, he worked as a translator (of Ross Thomas, Donald Westlake and Alan Moore among others), as a scenarist for film and TV, as an editor, as reviewer of films and essayist on thrillers and crime fiction. After 1989, treatment of and complications from a pancreatic tumor made work impossible. He died in 1995 in Paris of lung cancer, aged 53.

From the first page of 3 to Kill, from virtually any page of Manchette, you know right away you're in the hands of a master, that the carnival ride for which you've paid will be more like plunging down a rapids.

    And sometimes what used to happen was what is happening now: Georges Gerfaut is driving on Paris's outer ring road....He has had five glasses of Four Roses bourbon. And about three hours ago he took two capsules of a powerful barbiturate. The combined effect on him has not been drowsiness but a tense euphoria that threatens at any moment to change....

    Georges Gerfaut is a man under forty. His car is a steel-grey Mercedes. The leather upholstery is mohagony brown, matching all the fittings of the vehicle's interior. As for Georges Gerfaut's interior, it is somber and confused....

    Georges is barreling along the outer ring road, with diminished reflexes....The fact that Georges has killed at least two men in the course of the last year is not germane.

Never on safe ground with Manchette, as here we're always a bit off kilter and balance, sometimes unsure just where in the story we are — in medias res, flashback, trapped in some sort of eternal recurrence?

Stopping to aid a severely injured man, Gerfaut attracts the attention of the man's attackers. They set themselves then on Gerfaut who, at first failing to connect the two incidents, nonetheless steps aside, out of his own life, to turn the killing back on them. A standard thriller plot, absolutely. The amazement is in seeing how much of the world's confusion, savagery and inadvertent comedy Manchette effortlessly loops and lassos into his novel.

Here is the opening of The Prone Gunman:

    It was winter, and it was dark. Coming down directly from the Arctic, a freezing wind rushed into the Irish Sea, swept through Liverpool, raced across the Cheshire plain (where the cats lowered their trembling ears at the sound of the roaring in the chimneys) and, through the lowered window, struck the eyes of the man sitting in the little Bedford van. The man did not blink.

    He was tall but not really massive, with a calm face, blue eyes and brown hair....An Ortgies automatic pistol with a Redfield silencer rested on his lap.

Another standard, archetypical plot: the hired killer who wants to give it all up. Again the pleasure is in seeing how many ways Manchette can twist and turn his story on the spit of that plot, how much weight he manages to pack into scenes that appear on the surface to be purely objective. Things move fast, almost at a blur — then excruciatingly slow. Sentences are clipped, headlong. Charged language everywhere, sometimes to the point of the incantory.

Help us. There is gristle here, there is bone. With Manchette we drive the ring road about Paris again and again, ineffable weight of the present and inescapable weight of the past pulling us down. We struggle towards the light we see above, gasp for air to relieve our bursting lungs....

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