In crime fiction, the egg came before the chicken. About a hundred years ago, American slang started comparing a person’s character to the specific preparation of an egg. A few decades earlier, in the late-nineteenth century, you could say someone was a “bad egg” or a “rotten egg,” but the metaphor was weak, lacking precision and a certain degree of imagination. Even today, a concerned parent can get away with calling a gang of underage drinkers “bad eggs,” but this usage hasn’t attracted nearly the same attention or cultural significance as the idiom that was popularized shortly afterward, and immediately made synonymous with a certain breed of crime stories: “hard-boiled.” Suddenly some Americans—and usually men—were hard-boiled. Hammett was hard-boiled, so was Chandler, and so were the tough, no-nonsense characters they created. Hard-boiled culture became defined by the familiar imagery—cigarettes, whiskey, briefcases stuffed with cash, fistfights, forceful kisses, and gunshots—and the venomous morality of their novels, and of others like them. This setting was populated with loners, thugs, forlorn lovers, estranged detectives, and crooked cops, and here, crime disrupted order, money ruled over everything, and violence became absolutely necessary. People spoke frankly yet deceived and succumbed to trickery; they killed without so much as a second thought or died insignificantly. Hard-boiled crime then became a process and a style, too, sharing many of the same obvious qualities as hard-boiled eggs: opacity and coagulation. The genre didn’t rely on a character’s deep interiority or in rich descriptions and backstories; everything could be clearly seen and understood as a solid silhouette of mass.
Naturally, the hard-boiled genre couldn’t be confined to a single country or language. Like Jerry Lewis—and more or less at the same time—the hard-boiled novel was successfully exported to France, where it was called the roman noir: Bogart translated nicely into Belmondo, shit easily into merde. One of the great innovators of this new aesthetic was the French crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, who started publishing novels in the early seventies. However, instead of following closely in the footsteps of his heroes Hammett and Chandler, the American paradigms, Manchette tried to push the limits of the hard-boiled novel as far as it would go: P.G. Wodehouse fondly described a few of his own characters as “twenty-minute eggs,” but Manchette’s seem to be boiled overnight, or in other cases—to make this metaphor more excessive—deviled eggs. Sometimes playing with the tropes of the roman noir and sometimes injecting it with his own political messages, Manchette expressed his desire to write “detective novels that are self-destructive, that are excessive, in other words that try to be to the classic detective novel, to the American detective novel what, all things considered, Don Quixote was to tales of chivalry.” But far from being a postmodern gag, Manchette parodied in order to enrich, and subverted to keep his readers guessing (and readers of detective fiction are a uniquely suspicious and suspect bunch, who, according to Borges, were invented by Poe for the purpose of being able to read him; Auden suggested these readers pursued murderous fantasies that they wanted to gratify but were too afraid to translate into action; while Manchette expressed pity for anyone who would read crime as a pleasant distraction). Building upon the hard-boiled genre and creating an offshoot of his own called the néo-polar, Manchette was a sincere but complicated trickster, a writer who claimed that detective fiction was “the great moral literature of our time,” who wanted to use the genre to expose the pitfalls of capitalism and the victims of the exploited classes, who found inspiration in Guy Debord’s theories but thought Hammett was the best novelist in the world since 1920, who looked more like a TV game show host than a provocateur, and who produced thin novels that are very entertaining and stylistically singular.
The Mad and the Bad is the latest Manchette novel to appear in English, which has been skillfully translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Originally published in 1972, the novel shares the same nightmarish and unclassifiable qualities of what Kingsley Amis said of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: “not quite a political bad dream, nor a metaphysical thriller, nor a cosmic joke in the form of a spy novel, but it has something of all three.” Yet unlike Chesterton’s novel, The Mad and the Bad is an entirely profane nightmare, which only flirts with moral or ideological messages, throwing them out in offhand ways, so as not to distract too much from the thrill of the ride. And what a ride! The novel begins with a strange, unassuming premise: Julie is somewhat randomly plucked from an asylum by the immensely wealthy philanthropist and businessman Michel Hartog, to care for his bratty, orphaned nephew Peter. It doesn’t matter that Julie is psychologically unbalanced or that she’s unqualified as a nursemaid, Hartog seems as well-meaning as he is eccentric and filthy rich: according to his chauffeur who has a debilitating limp from the war, “The boss’s way of doing good is over the top. He only hires retards . . . The cook is epileptic. The gardener only has one arm, pretty handy for using the shears. His private secretary is blind. His valet suffers from locomotor ataxia—no wonder his meals arrive cold!” Julie is an odd fixture at this modern mansion lined with Mondrians and Pollocks—but her time here is short-lived: the day after beginning her new job as a nursemaid, both Julie and Peter are kidnapped and flung into an elaborate plot, which begins to spiral out of control as the unlikely pair are pursued across France by a sickly hired assassin named Thompson and a couple of his cronies. Thompson, the veteran killer, perfectly contrasts Julie’s inexperience with the criminal world: he’s an exemplary hard-boiled character, who embodies many of the genre’s ideals—an unsentimental thug who spouts wooden lines like, “Don’t move or I’ll hurt you” and “They’ll have to be killed, all three of them”—but he’s tired and washed up, as though these ideals have decayed inside of him, hollowing him into a saggy balloon-like caricature of the typical hard-boiled hero. Killers become a bit ridiculous in old age—murder is a young-man’s game, increasingly so as the reality of a bullet is replaced by ulcers or emphysema (and perhaps unintentionally, this also echoes Manchette’s broader ideas about the crime genre, which, by the seventies, already had more than a few wrinkles). Thompson, though he lacks any fully articulated psychological depth, is still one of the most intriguing elements of the novel, at least to me, following the reasoning that Don Quixote’s relationship with chivalric romances wouldn’t be as strange or interesting if he had begun his journey as an able-bodied young man. The reader inevitable senses, after spending only a few pages with Thompson, that this job will be his last.
Despite the kidnapping, shootouts, thefts, killings, and many other criminal offenses that Thompson and his men—as well as Julie—get involved with, the police have almost no involvement in the novel. The police are capitalism’s servants and therefore the enemy, even to Julie, who is being pursued by assassins: Manchette, in one brief essay, tried to encapsulate his political response to the crime novel: “Social and political power is exercised by bastards. More precisely, by unscrupulous capitalists, allies of or identical to gangsters brought together in organizations, having in their pay politicians, journalists, and other ideologues, as well as justice, the police, and other henchmen.” In this light, the fringes of society are reduced fighting with an aggressively individualistic morality—bitter existentialism with a taste for blood, and here, the law only clutters things up. The best that the criminals or Julie—who escaped from a different imposed order, the mental institution—can hope for is to escape, or having failed that, to fight the law and lose with unwavering convictions. One of the most unforgettable scenes of the novel is an example of this utter neglect for order or the law, in which a department store is set on fire by Julie, and it’s amid this pandemonium that Thompson finally finds himself truly in his element: “Fragments of plastic flew from the display. The store was filled by an intense tumult. This is exciting, I am enjoying this, Thompson told himself as he spat gastric juice onto the ground.” If Zola was the novelist of the department store, Manchette is the novelist of the destruction of the department store.
While The Mad and the Bad packs just about as much absurdity and violence as possible inside a linear, gripping narrative, it contains fewer obvious political overtones than Manchette’s other novels, or those that I’ve been able to read in English. Nada, for example—which was also published in 1972 and made into a film two years later by Claude Chabrol—follows a small gang of ideology-obsessed terrorists as they kidnap an ambassador from a brothel and escape to the countryside to hold him for ransom. The gang is a loose caricature of one of those extremist factions that sprouted up all over Europe amid the social and economic crises of the seventies and after the widespread disillusionment and failed revolutions of the sixties—for example, the Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany or the Red Brigades of Italy. (Incidentally, in April 1968, four young radicals, including Andreas Baader, were arrested on the suspicion of burning two department stores in Germany—probably in some way referencing this, in The Mad and the Bad, an angry bystander mistakenly blames the department store fire on Maoists.) Nada engages directly with revolutionary politics and the justification of terrorism against the state, but in this story as well, to confuse things a bit, the mode of address shifts back and forth from farce to tragedy. Toward the very end, after everyone else has perished in a spectacular shootout, the lone surviving member of the gang announces (this quote is lifted from the subtitles of the film Nada):
The state hates terrorism, but prefers it to revolution. When each man realizes the need to destroy the State, the State tries to destroy everything . . . Thus the lone assassin becomes a type of behavior consumable by society. The State has chosen between revolt and death and hopes everyone will make the same choice. It’s a trap for revolutionaries, and I fell into it. I’m not the only one. And that makes me shit.
This speech seems to echo Manchette’s own ideals, and his own scattered revolutionary critiques, but it’s also so full of cynicism and despair that it makes for a very unclear conclusion. Similarly in another Manchette novel, Fatale, the heroine Aimée goes on a murderous rampage through the morally corrupt town of Bléville. She orchestrates a scheme to make loads of money by murdering an obsolete, trouble-making baron, but ends up feeling guilty or disgusted, and then becomes something of a resemblance to Eric Hobsbawm’s “social bandit,” or some sexier version of it: an exterminating angel and unlikely savior from capitalist greed and corruption. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the diluted political messages in Fatale, which at one point contrasts the affluent city center’s street name Adolphe Thiers (one of the biggest enemies of the Paris Commune) to the working-class neighborhood’s street name Jean Jaurès (the celebrated socialist who was murdered on the eve of World War I), but which only partially barely elaborates Aimée’s political motivations. The Prone Gunman, too, is ostensibly about class struggle—Martin Terrier amasses a fortune as an assassin to impress his teenage sweetheart, who’s on a higher social rung than his, and he wants to quit and settle down with her, but gets trapped into pulling one last job. However, the inclusion of nymphomania, amnesia, and the assassination of a well-known public figure turn this novel into more of a hazy bloodbath. Like Manchette’s other characters, and especially Thompson of The Mad and the Bad and Aimée of Fatale, Martin Terrier is an unpredictable variation on a type of hard-boiled character, and one that is reanimated because of some derailed expectations on the part of the reader. The same can probably be said about Manchette’s political messages, which adorn his novels like a camouflage costume on a hunter.
Manchette’s novels inadvertently complicate the exchange between didacticism and entertainment. On the one hand, his writing consciously strives to become part of the tradition of ethically dangerous literature that was articulated by Georges Bataille in Literature and Evil: books that awaken the reader’s sense of fear, alienation, and repulsion, and force them to transgress everyday morality. But on the other hand, his novels are simply too entertaining and outrageous to be read as serious cultural criticism. Does it matter whether or not a reader of Manchette feels compelled to punch a cop or speak out against capitalism after finishing one of his novels? Well, probably not. Manchette would’ve liked to inspire violent impulses in his readers, or at least some sense of moral indignation, but ultimately in his work, the transgression of form becomes more interesting than the transgression of values. Particularly in The Mad and the Bad, the reader is flung into a hard-boiled plot that speeds through scenes of bloodshed, chaos, and savagery, and like Godard’s film Weekend, the depictions of destruction are more fun and enduring than their meanings.
Tynan Kogane is an Associate Editor at New Directions. He was raised in Seattle and graduated from the New School.