He felt envy for Fuentès, which reminded him that he had to kill the man. The Arminius was in his left hand. Hartog crouched among the flowers and kept watch. From not far away, behind the walls, came the sound of gunfire. He counted four reports. He waited.
Cinematic, to the point, and perfectly suited to this strange tale, this description comes late in The Mad and the Bad, originally published in France in 1972 and the most recent novel by the celebrated French writer of existential thrillers, Jean-Patrick Manchette, translated, by the excellent Donald Nicholson-Smith, who also translated Fatale.
Although the armature of his novels is straightforward polar—a catchall French term for anything from a generic thriller to a spy story to a detective novel—what Manchette introduced to the genre was something new, bringing to the fiction of Chandler and Hammett a political slant and a sardonic sense of the absurd. He created the néo-polar, which gave rise to a generation of writers that has expanded upon, played with, torn apart, and reinvented the standard detective or thriller novel, often blurring the genre (René Belletto, for instance, occasionally takes his thrillers from les rues méchants of Paris into the unexpected realm of science-fiction), and turning on their heads all those familiar tropes from movies and dog-eared paperbacks. Manchette translated into Frenchmany works by, among others, Ross Thomas and Donald Westlake, and was also a prolific film reviewer and screenwriter, either adapting or contributing dialogue to some twenty feature and TV movies, and collaborating with the celebrated director Claude Chabrol on his own adaptation of another of his novels, Nada. Working in a deceptively simple prose style that grabs you from the start, his writing kicks up sparks and bullets on every page. It’s the prose of a man who knows his noir.
Although La Position du tireur couché (translated in the US as The Prone Gunman) and Le Petit Bleu de la côte ouest (here published as Three to Kill, a title that loses the jazz overtones of the French one) are his most substantial works, seeing some of the lesser-known earlier titles in translation is always a treat. As with Fatale, the main character in The Mad and the Bad is a woman, and much like the self-styled Aimée Joubert of Fatale she is one pissed-off lady. Damaged by a childhood experience at a police station akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s, Julie keeps her emotions wound tightly within her. She brings to mind the character played by Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, one tough lady with a desperate need to survive and a serious score to settle.
Jean-Patrick Manchette was born in Marseille in 1942, was raised in Paris, and died in 1995. He became politically engaged by the Left as a student at the Sorbonne, which informs all of his work. His protagonists tend to be solitary, often damaged creatures in a corrupt and deceitful world: a businessman who has caused the deaths of two people, a woman who ingratiates herself with the rich and the entitled, a hitman forced out of retirement to kill one more time, characters familiar to readers of American crime stories. The loner. The drifter. The man who comes to town with a gun and a memory. The mysterious woman who walks into a man’s life, sending them both into a tragic trajectory.
Power is what interests Manchette, the inequality that results from it and the impulse for revolt and revenge that it engenders. A lot of brandy is drunk by people in high castles while others close in on them in the shadows. According to a journal entry of February in that vital, revolutionary year of 1968, the idea for The Mad and the Bad—called in French Ô Dingos, Ô Châteaux!—came from his wife, who envisioned a screenplay built around a neurologically-fragile young woman driving across France alongside a life-size boy puppet modeled on a real child that had died. Manchette felt the subject was something of a dead end, especially as the audience would know from the start that the puppet wasn’t the child that everyone else seemed to take it for. But out of this notion he constructed another story, the tale of what could be construed as a perfect crime: a young orphan destined to inherit a vast fortune is kidnapped by an institutionalized woman, the passive, silent Julie Ballanger. His intentions become clear: hire a crazy lady to look after the orphaned nephew. She murders the boy, the uncle becomes the heir to the child’s fortune, and the nanny is eliminated. All the blame is on her. As the man driving Julie from the asylum says of her new employer:
“He only hires retards. He sets up factories for cripples to work in, can you figure that?”
“Those guys who go around in little motorized wheelchairs? He’s got them working on a production line! In this house it’s the same baloney. The cook is epileptic. The gardener has only 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!”
But, as the uncle explains to Julie, “You—you are different…. You need love.”
Perhaps he’s right. And possibly it’s that which becomes his undoing. What she does to subvert his scheme brings The Mad and the Bad to a surprising, and surprisingly resonant, conclusion.