Thursday, July 03, 2014

French Noir

The Mad and the BadThe Mad and the Bad 
by Jean-Patrick Manchette

"It was ten in the morning when Julie and Peter arrived by taxi at the Jardin du Luxembourg.  The girl's anger was gently congealing in her mind.
'I've never been here before,' said Peter.
'You must have been.'
'No, never.  Marcelle used to take me to the Bois de Boulogne.'" (p 41)

Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942–1995) was a genre-redefining French crime novelist, screenwriter, critic, and translator. Born in Marseille to a family of relatively modest means, he grew up in a southwestern suburb of Paris, writing from an early age. While a student of English literature at the Sorbonne, he contributed articles to the newspaper "La Voie communiste" and became active in the national students’ union. In 1961 he married, and with his wife began translating American crime fiction—he would go on to translate the works of such writers as Donald Westlake and Ross Thomas,often for Gallimard’s Série noire. Throughout the 1960s Manchette supported himself with various jobs writing television scripts, screenplays, young-adult books, and film novelizations. In 1971 he published his first novel, a collaboration with Jean-Pierre Bastid, and embarked on his literary career in earnest, producing ten subsequent works over the course of the next two decades and establishing a new genre of French novel, the néo-polar (distinguished from traditional detective novel, or polar, by its political engagement and social radicalism).

His The Mad and the Bad, first published in 1972, has recently been translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith and published by New York Review Books.  It is a taut crime thriller which opens as wealthy Parisian architect Michel Hartog springs Julie Ballanger from a New Age mental hospital and hires her to look after his nephew, Peter, a boy of six or seven whose parents died in a plane crash. Meanwhile, Thompson, a vicious hit man with a queasy stomach, eats choucroute after a particularly grisly job. Very soon Thompson is recruited by a mysterious client to kidnap Julie and Peter and kill them, making their deaths look like the work of the mentally unstable nanny. While the kidnapping takes place the wheels begin to go off their operation fairly soon as Julie and Peter escape, and are pursued across France by Thompson and his thugs. This noir thriller is particularly violent and graphic with a plot that takes place at a very high speed. Readers more familiar with France than I may better appreciate the landscape covered by the pair chased by the hired killers. Will Julie discover who hired Thompson in time to turn the tables, or will the nanny and her charge succumb to the seeming inevitable? With the addition of social criticism typical of the dissipated left-wing malaise of post-’68 France woven unobtrusively into the well-paced plot this book is entertaining for all but the squeamish.

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1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

Sounds very dark in a fun way.

I really like it when serious social criticism and other important themes are included in books like these.