Born in 1942 in Marseille. Between 1971 and 1981, wrote ten novels and revolutionized the very notion of the crime novel itself. A leftist, influenced by Guy Debord and the Situationist International. Died in 1995 of cancer. Universally recognized as the founder of the French neo-polar and the best representative of that movement. Which makes him, Jean-Patrick Manchette, the best novelist in the world since Dashiell Hammett, and I will attempt to prove it.
The world Manchette published his books in, the world he was responding to, was one still reeling from May 68, the month that marked capitalism’s brief stumble. Student and worker protests overturned the paving stones of French streets, against the grips of consumerism and American imperialism. A thrill of revolutionary fervor that quickly settled to the ‘heavy fog of the 1970s.’ It was this world of political paranoia that Manchette began to publish his novels, his revolutionary contributions, his neo-polar.
The crime novels of the time were fixed on formula and procedure, cops-and-robbers affairs that bordered on the ‘right-wing, even extreme right-wing,’ according to Didier Daeninckx. The neo-polar, and Manchette himself, represented a radical departure, fusing pulp and politics, the novel form as social critique, pushing further left than Hammett, as Raymond Chandler would have put it, ‘gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons,’ the reasons being, one dare might say, the dynamics of capitalist society that force his characters to Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell.
This synthesis, this blending of ‘high’ mind and ‘low’ art, comes as no surprise when one considers Manchette a student (though afar) of the Situationist International, of founder Guy Debord, of his critical text The Society of the Spectacle. In that crucial work, Debord states that capitalism has moved from an ‘immense accumulation of commodities’ to an accumulation of spectacles, that mass media and consumption has replaced (and degraded) authentic lived experience in everyday life with mere representations, by images, with social relations between people being mediated by these images. He defines several specific forms in information, propaganda, advertisement, and entertainment. ‘The spectacle,’ Debord writes, ‘is the present model of socially dominant life.’
One method to undermine the spectacle, theorized by Debord, was the détournement, a ‘reuse of preexisting artistic elements in a new ensemble.’ Namely, to take forms of mass media against itself, the political status quo. Products, slogans, advertisements, to use the image against the image. Is this not what Manchette achieves with his neo-polar? To take the crime novel, to ‘hijack’ it, to sketch a grotesque world where crime and commerce is merely a difference of circumstance. Many of Manchette’s plots involve marginalized ‘isolatoes’ cornered by Forces beyond their control, wielding sometimes a businessman, sometimes the State itself. Where Hammett’s Continental Op illuminated the poison of Personville, the portrait of the Depression Era, Manchette’s out-of-her-wits Julie, the militant Nada gang, cold-killer Aimée, presented his post-68 world, running on the same fumes, with an indictment. His most famous quote now snaps into sharp clarity, the crime novel being ‘the great moral literature of our time.’
Manchette’s literary style, then, is the lens for his investigations. Blunt and brutal as a car crash, jazz on the radio, specifically a West Coast variant. He follows in Hammett’s ‘behaviorist’ tradition, writing only as it appears, the observation of an unblinking private eye. Clipped prose, hard dialogue, self-consciousness bordering the postmodern. Lurid as they are philosophical. Thin novels that move quick, each sentence a cut to the next shot, a cinematic quality. Epigram Hegel, cut to dead anarchists. ‘Thompson had decided that he could wait no longer. With stunning speed the store was transformed into a madhouse.’ And just a joy to read. If Hammett’s style, as Manchette himself put it, was a ‘human bone,’ devoid of poetic embellishment, then Manchette’s bone is one freshly ripped out, chiseled, and already in your eye.
Plots are standard in setup but never in (many times very literal) execution. Man (or woman)-on-the-run, a kidnapping, a murder to solve. But, despite the labels, there is no mystery. Greed, corruption, alienation, these are the things that set in motion the chase. While obvious to us, in the superficial comfort of our reading, the characters certainly are not, for they do not have the luxury to think on such things, life and death is as quick as a page flip, as close as here and now. And is this rat race not similar to Debord’s concept of the dérive? Another tactic against the spectacle, the unplanned journey through an urban landscape, whereby ‘one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’ Hitmen, terrorists, leftists, reactionaries, dirty cops and crooked politicians, all populate the psychogeography of these journeys, allowing Manchette space for political commentary before blowing them up with a shotgun pump. All with a French coolness, a cold distance, Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot. As his characters run through this world he meticulously lists products, brands, political slogans, literary icons, the makes on guns, acting as a sort of cultural archivist, but also because Manchette is well aware of the commodification of our society. In Manchette’s behaviorism, all things that appear have become images, representations, spectacles. Thus, the crime novel itself.
Enter the primary contradiction of Manchette’s noble project, one he was well aware of. Any appreciation of Manchette tends to be falsified, ‘for the culture market, in developing with a panicked frenzy, valorizes everything, notably extra-artistic objects, in a crazed and indifferent manner. Detective novels, cartoons, Walt Disney, paintings by madmen and a thousand other things are touted with an equal promotional enthusiasm, under the imprudent pretext of consoling the oppressed creature.’ Manchette hoped we knew this then, and we must remind ourselves now. We must not forget that Manchette’s neo-polar, Hammett’s crime novels, the film noir, represent a necessary moment in time, an authentic movement that was immediately co-opted and resold back to us on thinner, pulpier pages. We have taken these contributions not as warnings, but as mere entertainment.The Detective-as-Archetype, once a cynical social critic has become a cheap Halloween costume, the trenchcoat ill-fitting, the gritted language behind a bent cigar a vacuous theatrical parlance. As his own words, ‘Most of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s have either been taken over or have run out of steam. The crime novel has followed suit. It is now no more than a minor cultural commodity perfectly integrated into the order of things and governed by authors who share none of my concerns.’ Hammett delivered society’s judgment, Manchette delivered its execution. And yet we remain, within the decay of a still spectacular culture. Whoever now reads Jean-Patrick Manchette with the simple pleasure of distraction should rather be frightened. For, to put it simply: this is why we’re already dead.
First Published: Notes on Philosophy, November 10, 2020;
Written by: Amérique Nakamura
Translated by: Carmen Group