The most influential crime writer? — Jean-Patrick Manchette plus a question for readers
Manchette reinvigorated noir, inventing what French critics call the néo-polar, or neo-whodunnit, and if all that neo stuff makes you roll your eyes, stop and think for a minute: How many of the old-time hard-boiled writers make your blood run cold the way they presumably did for readers in the 1930s and 1940s? How mean, in other words, are Raymond Chandler's mean streets today?
Certainly Manchette's time, an age that saw assassinations, cover-ups at the highest levels, and revelations of the violence that attended colonialism and its end, could no longer be shocked by small-town or even big-city corruption of the Hammett and Chandler kind. Manchette restored that ability to shock, with tales of what power can do to those it finds convenient to crush. And he did it while remaining true to the roots of pulp. Heck, the guy even loved American movies and played the saxophone. How much more genuine can you get?
I was reminded of Manchette twice recently. The first reminder came in Duane Swierczynski's novel The Blonde, which names a character, or rather a part of a character, after Manchette. I suspect Swierczynski would not call himself a political writer. Still, he was attracted by Manchette's non-stop, man-on-the-run plots, and something of their energy infuses Swierczynski's own work.
The second arrived this week in the form of a tribute on the encyclopedic Ile noire blog on the thirteenth anniversary of Manchette's death. The article, in French, discusses the rage Manchette felt at political repression in the time after the political and social upheavals of 1968. The author himself coined the term néo-polar, according to one critic quoted in the article, not because he wanted to introduce a new school of French crime writing, but to emphasize that he was parodying the traditions of the genre's classics. The Ile noire article links to a Manchette Web site, also in French, that is as comprehensive as any I have seen. For a beautifully written appreciation, try this piece by James Sallis. (It's in English.)
As for Manchette's influence, how about Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca novels? And here's an open-ended set of questions for you, readers: If you've read Manchette, what's your take on him? If not, let's revive the old question of who the most influential crime writer is, only with a twist: Who is the most influential crime writer since the end of World War II? And why?
© Peter Rozovsky 2008
French crime fiction