May 15, 2018
“Her heart was not hardened but her skin was thick,” writes Jean-Patrick Manchette of the titular protagonist in his last, unfinished novel, Ivory Pearl, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith with a superb ear for Manchette’s incomparable voice that easily shifts between the grit of the hyperfactual—“…in his right hand he held a semiautomatic Sauer Model 38 chambered in .380 ACP and fitted with a silencer”—and the nimble ability to sketch with the sparest of words the heart of a character, laid out, in this case, in three easy steps: “She wanted to become a professional photographer. She dreamt of meeting Robert Capa. She had an alarming predilection for images of dead bodies.” Ivy is a survivor who at one point casually, almost happily, admits having conveniently lost her appendix when she “caught that Viet round in ‘52.” And like so many other of Manchette’s characters, she also knows her jazz. Everything helps when you’re on a mission.
Manchette once called the crime novel “the great moral literature of our time,” which for him meant dealing not just with the traditional tropes of the policier or the noir, but in situating the narrative in the wider world, with its geopolitics and the masters of the dark arts of politics and espionage. It’s what initially separated Manchette from his generation of French thriller writers, who tended to adhere to the American model: bad guys do bad things, good guys (or bad guys turned, at least for a few hundred pages, better, with an option to relapse at any time) restore order. There were always a few outliers who were paving their own unique ways in the genre, but Manchette was the most politically committed of them. Born in 1942 to parents who had fled the Paris banlieue during the German Occupation, his family returned to a working-class district south of Paris in 1945. In his teens he began to read detective and science-fiction novels and comic books, all the while immersing himself in American films. He also became enamored of American jazz, and began playing tenor and alto saxophone. When he was eighteen, in 1960, he became politically active, describing himself as a “militant gauchiste,” especially with what was happening with France in Algeria. Apart from writing his own novels, he wrote screenplays for, among other, Claude Chabrol, and was a translator of many American thrillers and detective novels, including several books by Ross Thomas.
With his acute political conscience and a heightened sense of morality comes, in this latest translation, a dedication to the history of our times, from the end of the Second World War to, had Manchette not died of lung cancer in 1995, the Cuban Revolution and beyond. In his journal entry for December 13th, 1988, Manchette writes of creating a néothriller, something more ambitious than the genre he helped to create, the néo-polar, developing a single storyline over several volumes, all dealing with covert action and featuring a single heroine, Ivory Pearl. This Balzacian project, as he describes it in his journal, was never realized.
Ivory Pearl, a photographer who has been witness to the climactic political moments from the fall of Berlin in 1945 to pre-revolutionary Cuba and beyond, is one of J-P Manchette’s most indelible and rounded characters, someone full of potential for later volumes, and it’s our loss that he died leaving the work unfinished. All credit, then, to his son, Doug Headline (Manchette in English means just that—a newspaper headline), for providing the reader with Manchette’s notes on how the work would have continued had he not died.
It opens with the apparent kidnapping (and possibly death) of a young girl, Alba Black, the niece of an international arms trafficker, whom we meet again only years later when Ivory tracks her down to Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. Such is the foundation for this story, which is not just a tale of survival and grit, but reflects in its time-frame and settings Manchette’s obsessions with political movements all across the globe. In March, 1956, Ivory is in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra. Eight months later Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and others would end up there to prepare to battle the Batista regime, eventually, in the first hours of January 1959, taking over the government. Alone, with the proficiency learned only from hard experience, she sets up camp, prepares her photographic lab, drinks rum, smokes a cigar, and sleeps under the stars. What she doesn’t know is that she’s being watched.
In cinematic terms, Ivory Peal is a thoroughly modern character—tough, resilient, courageous and not without wit, bringing to mind Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road. Though the novel was originally published in 1996, even twenty-odd years later Ivory seems alive, completely credible. Place her in any tense situation and she’ll own the scene. The fact that this is an unfinished novel should not deter readers, especially those who’ve been reading Manchette’s English translations published by New York Review Books. It’s a rich, elegantly-plotted work that, even had the author lived to see the series to its final volume, still must be considered one of his strongest efforts, standing alongside Three to Kill and The Prone Gunman.