Molly blogs about international crime fiction the third Thursday of each month. Last month, she looked at the Tartan Noir novel Laidlaw, the first of the Laidlaw Investigation Trilogy, by Ian McIlvanney. Since then, the second novel in the trilogy has been released and is now available on our shelves. This month, she features Jean-Patrick Manchette’s classic noir, The Mad and the Bad, recently released by New York Review Books Classics with a new translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith.
I have been a fan of the New York Review of Books and their releases my entire adult life, ever since I figured out that every single one was bound to blow my mind. The Mad and The Bad, by Jean-Patrick Manchette, released in July of this year, is no exception to this rule. Manchette wrote the novel back in 1972, but the themes of the novel, including an in-depth exploration of mental illness, feel incredibly modern. Manchette combines Tarantino-esque ultra-violence with haunting evocations of fairy tales gone horribly askew, as well as a joyful, burn-it-all-down attitude to provincial middle-class culture.
As The Mad and the Bad begins, we first meet Thompson, a highly paid killer for hire with a stomach ulcer; Hartog, a wealthy industrialist with a penchant for surrounding himself with damaged people; Peter, his spoiled orphan nephew and heir to his wealth; and Julie, a recently released asylum inmate with a poor hold on reality and much better grasp of survival. Hartog has hired Julie as Peter’s new nursemaid, and when Peter is kidnapped, Julie takes her duties surprisingly seriously, becoming a more dangerous foil to her adversaries than anyone could have imagined. Their confrontation leads to a chase across France more epic than that of a storied outlaw.
Manchette has created a tenacious and fascinating female protagonist in the character of Julie. Her capacity for violence and self-preservation serves as a reminder that noir has long had authors interested, willing, and able to write heroines not particularly interested in romance and quite capable of protecting themselves. Julie has as many weaknesses as strengths, however, and each of her actions realistically vibes with her character.
Jean-Patrick Manchette began his career writing screenplays in the sixties, and when the seventies hit, decided to expand into crime novels. His previous career is evident in his cinematic dialogue and stripped down descriptions, with nary a wasted word. Every scene moves the plot forward, and as the novel continues, the pace becomes frenetic in its intensity. The book even takes about the same amount of time as a film to finish.
Manchette represents the best in French crime fiction, with characters whose moral ambiguity and marginal existences come right out of a Jean Genet novel. James Sallis’ excellent introduction discusses the book as one of the defining examples of the neo-polar detective novel where storylines take a hard line against corruption and injustice while affectionately portraying society at the margins.
This book serves as an excellent reminder that the French don’t just analyze American noir – they also write their own, and for some authors, noir does not serve as code for unrelentingly depressing. Some of them write, instead, fairly gleeful noir, and this book will make you think, just for a second, that maybe shooting someone’s foot off or burning down a department store is, in fact, not such a big deal after all. It might, in a twisted way, even be fun.