The Subversive French Crime Fiction of Jean-Patrick Manchette


From Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, last year’s collection of mostly midcentury stories by the likes of Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, and other lesser-knowns to the critical and commercial success of writers like Gillian Flynn, Megan Abbott, and Tana French to the Library of America adding a volume with four of Elmore Leonard’s novels from the 1970s to its esteemed collection, this is the perfect time to embrace crime fiction beyond Hammett, Christie, and Chandler. And now, with NYRB Classics releasing another English translation of his books, Americans have another opportunity to enjoy the works of French author Jean-Patrick Manchette.

There is already a dose of subversion built into crime fiction that you might not get with other novels: you never know who to trust, the heroes usually come with all kinds of baggage, and the author is at liberty to take the story in whatever strange direction they want. You might be expecting one thing, but there’s something wonderful about being toyed with until the final pages of a book, totally unaware of what will be on the next page.

Crime writers also often have their own unique way of letting you know what’s going on (“It was a dark and stormy night,” etc.), a special kind of ability to describe people and situations that escapes a lot of fiction writers. Manchette was no exception: “He was a man of around fifty with a British look about him,” he writes in The Mad and the Bad, his latest book presented to Americans, close to twenty years after his death in 1995. “His dark face was shaped like a Vienna sausage. His hair looked like pieces of straw crudely stuck to his cranium, and his mustache was likewise saggy.”

With Manchette, you get all that, but there’s something a little more; he was a writer who was informed by leftist politics that took shape during the during the War of Algeria. Eventually, like others on the French left, the work of Guy Debord and Situationist International started to impact his thinking, and you notice it in his books, his writing. You get the sense that, no matter their station in life and no matter what side you perceive them to be on, his characters are usually less at fault than the system that created them.

It’s this that makes Manchette a counterculture crime writer: there’s something more to his work than just providing the reader with a thrilling story. He not only bends and wonderfully warps the way in which another crime writer might describe things, his stories are filled with little commentaries on capitalism and plenty of blurred lines between who is good and bad, sane and crazy.

It’s almost playful, in the same way fellow French artists have repurposed the hardboiled detectives, tough guy gangsters, and small time crooks we Americans have long produced (see: Godard’s Breathless, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, or Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot singing about real life American criminals Bonnie and Clyde.) Manchette’s fiction, which also includes a few titles translated into English and published by City Lights, shares an anti-establishment vibe with those darlings of the New Wave and Gainsbourg, one of the most famous Frenchmen of the 20th century. Now it’s time for an American audience to embrace his work in the same way they have those other luminaries.