'We go to France and they turn us into stencil drawings...'
As a commuter who likes to read with a daily journey of over an hour you can imagine that I get through quite a lot of books. I read all sorts. Travel, memoirs, how to play poker and so on. Top of the genre list however is crime. Cops, robbers, lowlifes. Killer born men, dipsticks, anti heros and of course broads with guns. There are loads of crime authors to recommend. Top of my list has to be the peerless Elmore Leonard. Open one of his paperbacks and you will be hooked in the first three pages. Because I get through a lot of this sort of material I like to vary my diet. Balance the mayhem out. So one week a Leonard will have to be tempered with a Pelecanos and then onto an Ellroy. This constant hunt for new material to read has recently introduced me to a lesser known name. One that I think has all the hallmarks of greatness. The name of the writer is Jean-Patrick Manchette.
Manchette was a journalist and screenwriter who sadly died in 1995. He was, according to the various after forward information, a man imbued with a clear socialist agenda who single handedly took the tired police procedural form by the lapels, and by imbuing his brutish and often comic narratives with a degree of political engagement and social radicalism, invented what has become known in France as the neo-polar novel.
From 1971 onwards Manchette wrote ten novels. For many years these remained un-translated and thereby mostly known only in France. Then via the City Lights publishers in San Francisco two of his works “Three to Kill” and “The Prone Gunman” crossed the Atlantic and became available to a new wider audience. "The crime novel," he once claimed, "is the great moral literature of our time"
The recent success in the UK of the French television programme “Spiral” is yet another reminder, if we need one, that the French have always cherished their criminal underworld and have sought to depict the eternal fight between good and evil-cops and robbers, with real verve. Whilst the gangster flick has always been a favourite of British cinema with some genre defining moments such as “Performance”, “The Long Good Friday” and “Sexy Beast” it has too often reverted to becoming a rather clichéd genre. Full of men in velvet collared Crombies, driving Jags and uttering such memorable phrases as “you’re having a laugh” or “sweet as a nut.”
The French have no need to fall back on these kind of stock pantomime characters. In France the criminal is more often than not portrayed as a more troubled and compromised individual. Battling with his inner demons. Trying to do what is right even though it’s probably all very wrong. On his trail are a bunch of cops often with the same conflicted morals. In ‘Spiral’ one of the key recurring elements in all three series is the fact that the core team of cops, Laure, Tintin and Gilou - the good guys, are quite willing to bend the rule of law at the drop of a chapeau to protect themselves at all costs from the trials and tribulations of the ‘legal system’ which although designed to facilitate justice, often does the complete opposite.
The genre itself emanates from America. Writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammet and James M. Cain created stories and characters that were always walking a similar moral tightrope. Collectively their work also raised up the genre effectively giving a crime novel the same status as say something by Henry James or Edith Wharton. In France this style of novel is known as polar. Movies like “Touchez Pas au Grisbi”, “Riffifi”, “Le Samouraï” “La Balance” and the recent “Spiral” exemplify this Gallic style of crime story telling where the criminal is the artist and the police man his stern critic. Enter Manchette.
“Three to Kill” concerns George Gerfaut, a bored business man depicted at the start of the story driving around a Paris ring road listening to jazz music on the radio...” Georges Gerfaut is a man under 40. His car is a steel-grey Mercedes. The leather upholstery is mahogany brown, matching all the fittings of the vehicle's interior. As for Georges Gerfaut's interior, it is sombre and confused....”
He comes to the aid of a car crash victim. Dutifully drops him off at the nearest casualty department and then leaves without any further comment. Unfortunately for him he has been observed by the two gangsters who caused the crash in the first place and now wrongly believe that he has been a witness to what turns out to be murder. Now he too must die. The result is a lively often violent narrative that sees the “quiet man” become a hero and rise incrementally to the occasion and ultimately out wit and defeat his enemies.
In it there is a scene where a naked girl rolls around joyfully in a pile of bank notes after a successful hold up. Manchette was smitten with the image and as soon as he was old enough to write set about creating his own intense criminal landscapes.
The second translated work “The Prone Gunman” concerns a hit man, Martin Terrier ,who has decided to do the archetypal “one last job” before he hangs up his silencer for good... “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.”
His boss however has other plans. Whilst both of these stories may, at first glance, appear like standard criminal fare, like all the best criminal doings in life- the pleasure is always in the way that the story it is told.
One perhaps cannot mention French literature without employing the term ‘existentialism’ and it’s all here in Manchette with his depiction of troubled characters who struggle to exist and prevail in worlds dominated by such classic existential obstacles and distractions as despair, angst, absurdity and, alienation.
Manchette was it seems influenced from a very early age when he came across what he described as a ‘primal’ scene in the wonderfully titled novel ‘Black Wings Has My Angel’. In it there is a scene where a naked girl rolls around joyfully in a pile of bank notes after a successful hold up. Manchette was smitten with the image and as soon as he was old enough to write set about creating his own intense criminal landscapes.
With these novels Manchette is credited with reinvigorating the French crime story. Termed polar in France. Out go melodramatic soap opera styled narratives and in comes a more cynical and strident tone. Informed as much by the radical politics of the Situationist prankster Guy Debord as it was by the likes of writers like Cain or Chandler.
Now joining these two classics is a third new translation of the novel “Fatale” This is a tale of a female assassin who secretes herself comfortably into a typical bourgeoisie society before finally running amok. The story reads like a Bunuelian surrealist exploit.
“Three to Kill” has recently been published as a graphic novel “West Coast Blues” with art work by Jacques Tardi and the original book is currently under option by a Hollywood based producer. “Fatale” too is also in the process of being turned into a graphic novel. All these books are short reads. You can virtually polish them off in one concise two hour sitting (London to Brighton return on the train) but do not be put off by that apparent brevity of execution. For like all the best things in life with Manchette less is always more.