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Review: Best Know the Evil-Doers

by CX

Photo: CX

"The private eye is bitter and patient and a tad hopeless because shit rules and he sees that he won’t succeed all on his own. And also because living in shit and blood and fighting disgusting people changes the private eye; it makes him unfeeling and tough, which is another way of being defeated."

- Jean-Patrick Manchette

… in 1994, addressing students at a technical high school, Manchette recalled his satisfaction upon learning that “some young extremists whom I did not know who were envisaging violent action had read Nada and treated it as a theoretical text and abandoned their plans.” Manchette noted, however, that “a novel can never be a pamphlet.”

- Donald Nicholson-Smith

The actual, included-in-the-book introduction to Nada (by Luc—now Lucy—Lucy Sante[1]) covers most of what you, Reader, would already need to know, so let these brief scrawls be something of a corny indulgence, an exercise in enthusiasm, in giving like a gift.

“The roman noir is the great moral literature of our time.” Roman noir, basically crime fiction; it is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s most famous quote, as it basically announces his aesthetic aims: that politics and pulp have a place within the same pages, the same book. And that it’s just plain fun to read. I encountered Manchette, years ago, early in my decision to read more fiction (and read more in general) so he always-already feels like some kind of ur-writer of my own personal canon, upon whom all future writers are judged. Manchette was my introduction to a kind of postmodern, self-conscious literature,[2] the kind in which the writer-narrator’s “I” inserts itself into the text, commenting on the action, sometimes undercutting the tension to make a point, either a political or comedic one, a lot of the time both; my introduction to guys like the Situationist International and Guy Debord and ideas like the spectacle and dérive and détournement and French critical theory in general; the history (and failures) of May ‘68 that informs his work, yet remaining steadfast to its ideals, like Badiou and his Fidelity to the Event (though not without some sarcasm and irony on the part of Manchette). Jean-Patrick Manchette is the kind of writer to make an epigraph of Hegel and mean it. Jean-Patrick Manchette’s style: a pushing-further of Dashiell Hammett’s[3] behaviorist style; making a lean sentence leaner and sharper and already leaving an exit wound; no time for silly overthinking on the part of these characters, in their panicked actions is instead a sort of un-thought or unconscious, illuminating the ideology that moves these characters, these bodies, illuminated by gunfire. If it weren’t for Manchette I would not be the reader I am, and you are what you read, to some degree or another. If Godard was self-conscious about his aping of cheap crime films (from Pauline Kael’s review of Band of Outsiders: “It's as if a French poet took an ordinary banal American crime novel and told it to us in terms of the romance and beauty he read between the lines…”) then Manchette did so with the cheap crime novel, re-inventing it in the process, calling it the neo-polar. Let this be my obeisance to a master.

To be honest, Fatale is the first book of his I’ve read, and still my favorite. That being said, Nada is probably Manchette at his most Manchette, the one you should probably read if you’re only going to read just one. (As someone whose read everything published of his in English, save for NYRB Classics’ recent release of Skeletons in the Closet,[4] they’re all worth reading, but perhaps your reading backlog more than rivals mine…) It is a book that in-itself turns out to be I suppose a pamphlet after all, if not in puerile sloganeering, then in form and content as a good book: both what good crime fiction is capable of, and what intellectual developments it induces in the careful reader. (I read somewhere once from John Updike the idea of “The book as souvenir. One’s collection comes to symbolize the contents of one’s mind.” Then, how about this? The book as gift. To introduce a new track where a mind could go. How dangerously and freely some of us recommend and gift books then! O, to be suddenly derailed! by a chance encounter no less!)

So, in this sense, what are we to make of Manchette today? What does Manchette offer for the average, present day, USA reader? Allow me to answer these questions with this question: When most contemporary writers seem so frigid and undead and in-themselves a commodity, how is it that a man dead from cancer since 1995 has more life and blood than these folks? Perhaps behind (or because of) all the slapstick there is an attempt at a moral seriousness in his fiction, something like a Dostoevsky. Perhaps because Manchette opens up and continues to represent a space, a new path for (crime) fiction to take today; in the face of all this cookie-cutter BS, here is something that actually cuts. Perhaps, and I’ve already mentioned this up top, that Manchette is just fun to read. To quote Becht here: “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” If we consider “bank” as something like what the French New Wave called “cinéma de papa,” a stale institution, then Manchette blew open a reactionary genre, shaking shit up, as if a member of his eponymous Nada Gang. If you like Nada then Fatale is probably the one to seek next, following that then his more straightforward (straightforward for Manchette, wild for everyone else) on-the-run novels The Mad and the Bad and 3 to Kill. Maybe The Prone Gunman somewhere in between, and then after that is fair game, because everything, as already mentioned, is worth reading. But Nada, if you need a zero-point, is where to start. At the very least it’s not nothing.


[1] There are spoilers within her introduction, however, something I dare not do here.

[2] Certainly not your usual/obvious, say, Wallacian suspects in terms of such initial POMO encounters, but one has no control over such contingencies, nor perhaps should you. One can only be open to them.

[3] Excerpt from “The Dashiell Hammett Family Papers” page off the University of South Carolina site, which should provide some context as to why Manchette himself considered Hammett such a master (here, from Manchette’s essay Toast to Dash: “He is universally recognized as the founder of the American roman noir and the best representative of the genre. Which makes him the best novelist in the world since 1920, and I can prove it.”): “In the age of McCarthyism, Hammett was swept up in the Red Scare and was imprisoned for refusing to name the sources of bail funds for communists. Later in 1953, he was blacklisted after testifying to a Senate Committee and his writings were branded ‘subversive’.”

[4] Soon, I promise.


About the Writer:

CX is doing what they can. All of their writing-things can be found also on Many Masks Press, and other places like other places.


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