Depending on how one accounts for co-authored works, comic books, and the occasional raid on the bargain basements of the publishing industry—those literary stash houses that offer safe haven to titles such as Ice Criminals, Hunting Nazis in South America and the leanly pornish Aphrodite Hunt—the French crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette put his name to something like eleven novels before his death in 1995, at the early age of 52. Though a legendary figure in certain circles in France, Manchette wasn’t widely known in the Anglophone world until 2002, when City Lights published both 3 to Kill and The Prone Gunman, the first of his novels to appear in English. Three more translations (Fatale, The Mad and the Bad, and Ivory Pearl) were fired off over the next decade and a half by New York Review Books, perhaps the most venerable publisher in North America. NYRB, despite that high-brow status, is no shrinking violet when it comes to genre fiction, which they put out regularly, if sparingly. They employ the same curatorial discernment when canonizing crime fiction that they practice when digging up buried monuments to modernism and granting them a new shine, and so the NYRB imprimatur alone might be sufficient to indicate the aesthetic ambition and political seriousness of Manchette’s work. As if to help underline the point, the back cover of Fatale reprints a sophic pronouncement from the author, likely his most cited, surely his most quotable: “The roman noir is the great moral literature of our time.”
It’s the kind of maxim—pithy, declarative, and, in retrospect, seemingly self-evident—that’s perfect for back-jackets and doubtlessly irresistible to the editors who prepare them. Margin inches being a limited resource, however, the quote appears shorn of its relevant context. Manchette was not, as might reasonably be inferred, justifying his own project; he was instead describing the demimonde of early twentieth century American crime fiction, the underworlds of writers like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and, most especially, Raymond Chandler. For Manchette, the figure of Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s signature creation, is less the bleary eyed knight-errant of popular imagination and more a half-woken radical shuffling about a sleeping proletariat, the only man willing to agitate against an otherwise unchallenged power apparatus. Obviously Marlowe is not a dialectical materialist in any strict sense—he picks his enemies by instinct, not by ideology—but he is resolutely committed to taking the world’s bastards down a peg, and if the bastards are always capitalists, well, maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere. On the other hand, there’s only so much one righteous detective can do. And so Manchette’s essay, pointedly titled “The Founding Fathers,” offers a crucial qualifier to the dictum: “The roman noir is the great moral literature of our time. Or more precisely, of the era that has just ended: that of the counter-revolution ruling without competition. The private eye is the great moral hero of that era.” It’s easy to understand why one might lop off this qualifier. For one thing, the ring of doctrinaire Marxism is a little outmoded (though the folks who maintain Marxist.org, where you can find an English translation of the essay, are presumably keeping the flame alive). For another, the full quote indicates a degree of anxiety about the present state of affairs that invites a natural follow-on question, one which requires a lengthier response than can likely fit on a book cover, or even within the confines of a short essay. Manchette wrote eleven novels in search of an answer. If the detective’s era is over, what comes next?
Nada. Or more precisely, Nada by Jean Patrick-Manchette. This novel, the author’s fourth, newly translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith for NYRB, is by many accounts Manchette’s first mature work. And though he would continue over the course of his career to hone his sharp prose to an increasingly fine point, to whip his narrative strands into ever tighter coils, and, in my estimation, to integrate his political concerns more fully with the conventions of the roman noir, it is Nada that finds Manchette wrestling most openly with the possibilities, and limitations, of “the new detective novel,” of a moral literature for his own time. Perhaps not coincidentally, upon its publication in 1972, it became a huge hit. That’s probably where the movies entered the picture. Subsequent to Nada’s commercial success, the production and distribution house Les Films de La Boétie acquired the rights to Manchette’s novels, Nada included. Though none of his books had yet been adapted for the screen, Manchette was not, at this or any point, a stranger to cinema. He was, variously: a cinephile; a mercenary scenarist; a sometime film critic; and a one-time director, with the necessary proviso that he renounced his sole mise-en-scène credit, a credit that he would have shared with his occasional collaborator Jean-Pierre Bastid, with whom he once wrote a movie that he attributed to the superbly daft nom de cinema “Michelangelo Astruc.” Hat tips to sundry film figures, from John Ford to Jacques Tourneur, crop up here and there in Manchette’s novels, right through to the end, which suggests that his affection for the seventh art remained undimmed despite the fact that most adaptations of his work were sloppy, cheap affairs that treated his source texts like so much run of the mill pulp. Manchette’s first cinematic interpreter, if not precisely a kindred spirit, was probably the best he ever had.
Claude Chabrol transcribes Nada’s narrative to the screen almost verbatim: a ragtag cell of anarchists (who, when listed together, purposefully sound like the set-up for a joke: an embittered ex-communist, a masochistic waiter, a young woman called Cash, a dipsomaniac driver, and a Spanish guerrilla whose name literally means “good luck”) plot to kidnap the American ambassador in France, soon thereafter execute the body-snatching, and then hole up in a farm outside of town to await a 200,000 franc ransom and—a touch more ambitiously—the arrival of widespread social collapse and economic re-ordering. Given that Nada the film is signed by one of the cinema’s premiere cynics, I don’t think it’s revealing too much to come right out and tell you that things do not go according to plan, spectacularly.
And anyways, the novel says about as much on page one. A gendarme records for his mother, in semi-literate prose but with great pride, his role in exterminating those “people who want to destroy everything,” though he’d really like maman to know that he personally had no hand in all that nasty killing business. Chabrol jettisons this opening for the film, but it’s not hard to see why Nada would have appealed to him immediately: bourgeois caricatures and cruel portents of doom are very much in papa Claude’s wheelhouse. Seen from an alternate angle, however, Chabrol is a less natural fit for this material, which might explain his scrupulousness as transcriber: Nada is first and foremost a novel of action, and although Chabrol was by this point a practiced genre hand, his particular thriller mode requires that violence be delayed when possible and, more distressingly, abjured entirely on occasion. Chabrol is most comfortable with fluid inaction. Manchette, despite picking up a camera only once before promptly putting it right back down, is probably the best action director ever produced by France’s cinema culture, broadly defined. His prose describes complex, intersecting lines of action with a precision and geometry that’s positively Langian. If it’s possible for novels to have insert shots, Manchette’s have them: he relishes cutting in to close-ups of bodies in savage death throes, heads erupting into fireworks of human particulate, and other similar rendezvous between fragile tissue and hot lead. And he details the projectile weapons that trigger such violence with a fetishistic specificity usually reserved for the movie camera. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani share next to nothing with Manchette, but in adapting Let the Corpses Tan, they at least out themselves as fellow-traveling gun freaks. A paradigmatic exchange, from The Prone Gunman:
“Do you have any idea what weapon you’ll use?” "I'm thinking.” Terrier closed his eyes. “I need a rapid-fire automatic assault rifle. One that will take a silencer.” “An Ingram,” suggested Maubert. "I don't think so. I'd prefer something else. I think I'd like bullets that travel faster than sound, so that the shots seem to come from the other side of the avenue.” “I don't know if we can have that for you in three days.” Maubert puffed out his cheeks and grimaced. “In any case, the silencer will slow it down.” “Failing that,” said Terrier, “get me something simple and solid—a Weatherby or something like that. I would also like a revolver.”
Manchette will happily provide a foley track too: carbine rifles emit ear-shattering reports; bodies hit the floor and discharge a fleshy squelch; skulls collapse with a crack “like the shell of a hard-boiled egg.” These are very loud novels.
The density of visual and aural information means that Manchette sometimes reads like a prose storyboard—a compliment, to be clear. That explains why many of his books lead second lives as graphic novels, and why Chabrol acquits himself admirably during Nada’s action sequences: he recognizes that his slinky mise en scène is a less than ideal corollary for Manchette’s machine-gun prose and adjusts accordingly, breaking up his favored dollies with brutal cuts and giving in to violent spasms even when the Hitchcock grammar book might recommend yet another teasing demurral.
He is less pliant when it comes to Nada’s politics. Manchette’s diaries, long since available in France but as yet untranslated to English, reportedly describe his dissatisfaction with the film’s ideological position, the result of two small alterations: as scenarist, Chabrol deletes both a dig against the newspaper L'Humanité, at the time an arm of the French Communist Party, and a sharper critique directed at French democracy itself. The author possesses an absolute right to take issue with such minor changes, though they are indeed minor, and I doubt very much if all but the most attentive viewers would note the omissions. Chabrol’s personal predilections do far more to scramble the meaning of the text than any narrow modifications could. Manchette was a gauchiste, though clearly disillusioned one, given his distaste for the official pillars of leftism; he’s perhaps best described, as he describes ex-communist Épaulard, who comes out of retirement to join the Nada gang despite long ago putting idealism on the shelf, as a man “acting out of despair.” Chabrol, by contrast, came from, and remained a part of, the world that he delighted in ambushing, and his ideological commitments run about as deep as those of a child who lights stink bombs during his parents’ dinner parties, who enjoys disrupting sacred middle class rituals, but who wouldn’t dare dismantle them. Which is to say, had Manchette provided him a different milieu, the wealthy small town of Fatale, let’s say, with its coterie of bulbous, gouty bourgeois shooting targets, Chabrol might’ve enacted the requisite political gestures with a little more conviction—though he’d remain, as ever, safe in the knowledge that no behavior is sufficiently wicked to get a favorite son expelled from the richly appointed surroundings that are his birthright. He wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, anyways.
Our enterprising terrorists would, of course, prefer a different world, if only they knew what it would take to bring it about. Like other children of May ‘68, Manchette included, the members of Nada presumably awoke one morning in the early 70s to discover that the Western social order was not much changed, that youth mobilization had failed to alter, in toto, the structure of human relations, and that their ideological dotage had set-in rather early—and old-age does tend to sap the imaginative faculties. The Nada gang is condemned, like the alcoholic in their ranks, to a kind of fatal path dependence, to executing the same-old left wing plots, which prove ever more bantamweight next to metastasising state power, and to making good on the nihilistic end promised by their moniker. In short: they too act out of despair.
But as Rainer Werner Fassbinder pointed out, in a critical interview at the time of Nada’s release, the film fails to take seriously the “desperation that has gripped these people;” Chabrol affects an “ironic attitude” that closes the possibility that “anything positive” might emerge from the Nada gang’s faltering attempts at ideological insurgency. Indeed, violent revolution must have seemed a ridiculous proposition to a man like Chabrol, who enjoyed the world far too much to dream of remaking it. A whiff of condescension was probably unavoidable. Though, to be fair, Chabrol is not the only one with a slanting read on the source material: Maurice Garrel is a touch too happy to be here, struts around (and hops into bed) too much like the happy warrior, never showing us what’s plainly evident on the page, that Épaulard no longer sees a meaningful distinction between insurrection and suicide. Fabio Testi, as Buenaventura, plays a brute as well as might be expected, and so succeeds for a time incarnating his character’s brusque animal spirit, but when events demand that he call forth a feral intelligence, to communicate Nada’s climactic revelation, he seems altogether too docile, incapable of activating the rage that ought to waken in any sentient creature the moment it realizes that it’s set its own trap.
“Leftist terrorism and State terrorism, even if their motivations cannot be compared, are the two jaws...of the same mug’s game” is Buneaventura’s conclusion after he narrowly escapes the police raid on the Nada compound, a vicious and premeditated counterplot conducted by the authorities with extreme prejudice, which leaves all of his comrades dead despite their cries of surrender. This final judgement is also, in an uncharacteristically straightforward fashion, Manchette speaking, another reason that it works better on the page than it does in Chabrol’s film: the frustrations and limitations of violent leftism have little to do with Chabrol’s fundamentally amoral universe, but they are not so different from the challenges inherent to Manchette’s literary project. “Marlowe goes off into the trees...the revolution has returned to the streets of the world,” Manchette tells us in “The Founding Fathers”; logically, a moral literature for this new era should conclude that individualized action is obsolete. And indeed, Nada theorizes what the crime novel might look like sans detective, with the gumshoe replaced by the groupuscule, and then illustrates—angrily, bitterly, despairingly—that, for the moment, collective action remains a tactical disaster. The counter-revolution simply co-opts the violence against it, returning the blows with exponential force; it’s even happy to hang a few counter-revolutionaries out to dry if that helps tidy up the PR mess. The world’s bastards still rule.
Nada is not, however, the last word. While its conclusion is hardly anomalous—pitiless violence is an axiom of the crime novel, after all—it does represent a particular dead-end that Manchette elsewhere avoids. That’s not to say that the novels that come after it deliver on the revolutionary promise of ‘68. On the contrary, Manchette reached an entropic endpoint by the time he completed The Prone Gunman in 1981, after which he temporarily retired, having apparently come down with a mild case of what the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas once dubbed Bartleby syndrome: he preferred not to write. But the final movement of The Prone Gunman, which strips the hitman hero of all his higher order functions and saddles him with early-onset senility, where he can only manage to line up a sniper’s shot in his dreams, is more representative of where Manchette typically leaves us. Immobilized, but with neurons still lighting up somewhere deep in the cerebral cortex. Not resoundingly positive, to echo Fassbinder, but paralysis and catatonia are preferable to complete annihilation by revanchist forces. Moreover, a moral literature should, by definition, instruct; it cannot rightly school us in defeatism alone. And while it’s unlikely that Manchette’s untranslated novels will offer, when they arrive in English, a comprehensive lesson in remaking the world (though I’m not ruling out the possibility that Aphrodite Hunt contains the definitive blueprint for the revolution), Fatale does assure us, in its final stretch, that “the workers [are] sleeping for JUST A WHILE LONGER.” The State turns Nada’s misguided bullets right back around, but perhaps there’s some value in continuing to fire away. Manchette wrote seven more novels, and so must have believed as much: the gunshots keep on ringing throughout his work, and should one emit a loud enough report, it might cause a slumbering proletariat to shoot up—from the prone position, let’s say—startled, shaken, but now finally awake.