Thursday, June 05, 2008

The most influential crime writer? — Jean-Patrick Manchette plus a question for readers

A year ago, I asked readers to name their choices for the most influential crime writer ever. Here's another name for the list: Jean-Patrick Manchette.

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

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , , ,

29 Comments:

Blogger The Clandestine Samurai said...

Hmm, I don't think I've read enough crime titles to answer that yet. I will definitely pick up a Manchette title as well as "The blonde."

I must admit that I'm a bit new to the noir genre, introduced to me by it's contemporary film manifestations (Memento, No Country For Old Men, Sin City), and it's repeated appearance in graphic novels (100 Bullets).

I keep reading that Mickey Spillane is a top selling noir artist, although it's common that what the casual public believes about an artist and what the genre fans believe are two different things. I read "Dead Street", and it had this strong sense of morality, of good and evil characters, that are not really supposed to be present in noir pieces. It was also kind of corny.

Right now, I'm reading Donald E. Westlake's "361", which is a truer rendition of noir than the above listed title. There's even a passage where the protagonist makes a point of showing his dim-witted brother that the world not composed of wholly good and evil characters.

So, in point, I will come back to your question later, after I've read some more titles. Please recommend good crime novels if you can.

June 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. Duane Swierczynski, author of The Blonde, said his favorite of definition of noir was "`screwed,' or to put it less politely, `fucked.'" That's not really Mickey Spillane. I've read just one of Spillane's novels and one story, so I'm no expert, but his work is generally classified as hard-boiled rather than noir for the reason you suggest: Despite all the toughness, there is that clear sense of good and evil. Of course, noir being such a difficult term to define, Swierczynski also asked the audience at the reading where he offered his definition: "Is my work noir? Judge for yourselves."

Noir is not my main area of crime-fiction reading, but I can tell you that the classic noir writers are David Goodis and Jim Thompson. Their protagonists start off low and sink lower. You might also try Lawrence Block's novel Grifter's Game and, among younger writers, Megan Abbott, Scott Phillips or Vicki Hendricks. If you click on Megan Abbott's name in the previous sentence, you'll be taken to an interview we did in which she talks about the pitfalls of trying too hard to define noir. And then there are the French, who first applied the word to a certain school of American writers, but who now use it more loosely than Americans do. It's probably best to forget all that stuff and get on with your reading.

June 05, 2008  
Blogger Zen Wizard said...

Oh, wow: You said since WWII.

"Of all time" would have to be Edgar Allan Poe because he invented the genre...

For me it would have to be James Ellroy.

If you don't believe me, just ask him: "I am a master of fiction. I am also the greatest crime novelist who ever lived. I am to the crime novel in specific what Tolstoy is to the Russian novel and what Beethoven is to music."

But I have not read this Manchette dude; I will have to check it out!

June 05, 2008  
Blogger Kelly said...

glad to find your blog, i'll have to check out some of your recommendations!

June 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Z.W., I had not read that Ellroy quotation, but for some reason his name came up in conversation very recently. The person with whom I was talking said Ellroy was, to put it as one would in a family publication, a boastful and disagreeable individual. What the heck; I read one book of his and loved it, and I don't have to meet the guy.

"of all time" would be relatively easy. "Since World Was II" is a lot tougher. Without a doubt, much new has happened since then, not least of which is the spread of crime fiction to places where it had never been popular before. For whatever reason, no consensus has developed around what the major achievements are.

I myself have little or know idea who the most influential post-WWII crime writer might be, and the question occurred to me only as I was typing the Manchette post. Perhaps I'll have a better idea, depending on the comments I get here.

The two books whose covers illustrate the post, by the way — The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill — are the only two Manchette titles available in English.

June 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Kelly. I hope you come back often. I suppose that much of what I write is recommendations. It's only human to want to write about, explain, discuss and share one's enthusiasm about what one enjoys.

June 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCS, with respect to your comment that:

"I must admit that I'm a bit new to the noir genre, introduced to me by it's contemporary film manifestations (Memento, No Country For Old Men, Sin City), and it's repeated appearance in graphic novels (100 Bullets)."

the connection between graphic novels and noir in books seems especially strong and could be way for readers to discover noir novels and stories. Our man Swierczyinski, to choose one example close at hand, writes both. And yes, I hadn't thought of Memento as noir, but it certainly shares certain noir features -- a fight against hopelessness, loss and confusion, for one. And that on-the-run plot has obvious ties to some of the stuff mentioned in this post.

June 05, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I reviewed Three to Kill for Euro Crime and its theme of an ordinary man pushed over the edge into extreme violence possibly influenced Massimo Carlotto's Death's Dark Abyss.

I certainly liked the taut, sharply written, all action style novel with more happening in 134 pages than some 600 page blockbusters.

http://www.eurocrime.co.uk/reviews/Three_to_Kill.html

June 05, 2008  
OpenID krimileser said...

"Who is the most influential crime writer since the end of World War II? And why?"

Peter, crime fiction comprise a variety of sub-genres and styles. Therefore there would be more than one writer. And influential for whom ? Readers, writers or the genre ? A certain time-point is a kind of a problem when a certain sub-genre was formed before this time-point (e.g. Noir and James M. Cain)

Anyway, Ross Macdonald put the final touch to the modern hardboiled, whereas Jim Thomson influenced the noir, Joseph Wambaugh and Ed McBain the police procedural, Derec Raymond a certain subset of writers even outside the UK. Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton (and Marcia Muller) developed the female hardboiled detective, Chester Himes (Iceberg Slim and Donald Goins) added the black perspektive, and don't we forget Patricia Highsmith.

re. Ellroy. You know that I like his books (don't care for the person). In my eyes they are possible the best crime fiction novels written, but I'm not sure whether he is really influential.

June 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Uriah, I like your comment about Manchette's miracles. I find myself using that word to describe feats of economical narration.

June 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Krimileser, you could not be more right. My question was deliberately provocative and intended to elicit more questions. I was thinking along precisely your lines when I suggested a few comments above that:

"`Of all time' would be relatively easy. "Since World Was II" is a lot tougher. Without a doubt, much new has happened since then, not least of which is the spread of crime fiction to places where it had never been popular before. For whatever reason, no consensus has developed around what the major achievements are."

Crime fiction has let not a thousand flowers bloom, but many thousands, which is a good thing, though it does not make for easy consensus about best, most influential and so on.

To pick just one of your examples, Gary Phillips gave a presentation at NoirCon in Philadelphia about Donald Goins. He discussed, among other things, Goins' ties to what is somewhat problematically known as ghetto lit or, more gently, urban lit in America. That's one more stream of influence from one of the authors you named.

June 05, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

AS I recall, Cape Fear is considered a great noir film (the 1962 movie, not the 1991 remake, although that has its fans). It was based on John D. MacDonald's The Executioners. I'd argue that MacDonald has to be up in the top five.

June 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If the McDonalds and MacDonalds could run as an entry, they'd have the title wrapped up.

June 05, 2008  
Blogger 2KoP said...

For my final semester of French in college, I signed up for the section that fit my schedule only to discover at the first session that the whole semester would be spent reading french detective novels. Though I'm not a huge fan of the genre, it was kind of fun (especially since most of the novels were short). Sadly, I can't remember a single title, but some of the rather obscure vocabulary has stuck with me. If I'm ever at a crime scene in Paris, I'll be sure to call on these: meurtre (murder), assassiner (assassinate), poignard (dagger), arme (gun), étrangler (strangle), détective privé (private investigator), à bout portant (point blank), and sanglant (bloody).

June 05, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Interesting that you should forget the titles but remember the vocabulary, though not shocking; some of the slang is delicious. Not long ago, I made a post about French criminal and police slang that you might enjoy. Probably my favorite of the many terms is keuf, verlan slang for flic, which, in turn, means cop, of course.

I suspect that Georges Simenon turned up on your syllabus, possibly more than once, since his novels tended to be short and also to turn up on reading lists.

June 05, 2008  
Blogger sidhubaba said...

Thanks for this blog. There is a lot I did not know (like everyone else I guess).

June 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Like everyone else" is right. This is a vast field, with many kinds of writing not obviously related subsumed under the name of crime fiction.

June 06, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

A humdinger of a question, Peter. I am going to nominate Ruth Rendell because of the last of the following three observations. First, though she did not originate it -- I think then of John Franklin Bardin -- she established the psychological crime novel as a significant part of the genre (I refer to her non-Wexford books, of course), a significant expansion of the literature. Second, rightly or wrongly, and putting aside Leslie Fiedler's backhanded compliment to the genre from 1972, she was the first crime novelist to be widely spoken of by critics as writing novels of the first order regardless of her chosen subject matter -- 'transcending the genre', for want of a happier way of putting it. Third, and this is the main point, I have an idea that Rendell's success and the sort of critical attention she received very likely gave many aspiring novelists who were not attracted to or inspired by the fashionable themes of 'mainstream' literature the idea that the crime novel might very well be the medium for them. Her influence would have been the greater in Britain and Europe than in the States, I am sure, and others swiftly followed in her wake, but the renaissance and efflorescence of the 'genre' over the past thirty years has been remarkable, and so too, I think, her role in it.

June 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I strive always for humdingers, so thanks.

As it happens, I've read just one of Ruth Rendell's novels -- The Veiled One, which was both a Wexford novel and, psychological in its interests, with emphasis less on the killer's motive than on his past, especially his family history. That quibble aside, yours is a humdinger of an answer, a nice reminder of the sprawling variety of crime fiction. I'd say all three of your answers are strong arguments for Rendell's claims. And it's nice to reminded, too, that the psychological crime novel, a class to which I have not paid much attention, has not been around forever; that someone had to bring it to the fore.

June 06, 2008  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

I'm going to go with Friedrich Dürrenmatt as the most influential. He really took the genre seriously and pretty much turned it inside out with THE PLEDGE.

I don't know if his influence is well-known, but I really think it has seeped into the subconsciousness of crime fiction.

June 06, 2008  
Blogger GJG said...

As a 71yo afficionado of "Mystery" who dunnits---first one to exclaim I love your blog" and am linking it to mine. Next must apologize for my "ignorance", I am an avid reader of said genre of books, but lousy at remembering author's names.---(my baad)---I love your question and its challenge, and have enjoyed terrible much all the ocmments input. I am a guy that as a teenager, snuck mickey spillane novels home and read that smutty stuff under the blankets at night in fear of being discovered by my elders.---the adjective NOIR I think is somewhat vague---for me it usually is applied ot dark lit films, that at best have an anti-hero as the hero---such films and books kinda leave me annoyed, but thats just MY opinion---on the othger hand, "hard boiled" , yeahh I can go with that?

June 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, that might amount to a vote for my man Friedrich Glauser, said to have influenced Dürrenmatt. I hadn't thought about the influence of The Pledge, but I suppose it was one of the earlier books to focus the relentless downward spiral of the protagonist and to dispense with the idea of good vs. evil. It was noirish in some interesting ways. But I'd guess its most influential feature might have been its focus on the protagonist's psyche as opposed to on the crime or its solution or the social milieu. Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor comes to mind as one possible recipient of this influence.

June 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the kind words. I like that you refer to the question’s challenge. I think of it that way, and I regard the responses as challenges, too.

Your verdict on the term noir is correct. It is indeed vague, or rather, it is applied to stories, films and even styles of various kinds. To some, it means what you suggest – moody lighting and anti-heroes. To others it means hopelessness or trench coats or soulful saxophone solos. To others it means a world without good. To still other – well, to me, anyhow – it means a special kind of hopelessness in which the protagonist goes voluntarily or knowingly to his or her fate. Mickey Spillane often comes up in discussions of noir vs. hard-boiled, most usefully as an example of what noir is not. There is no difficulty figuring out who or what is good and who or what is evil in his stories.

June 06, 2008  
Anonymous Fiona said...

While I wholeheartedly agree about Ruth Rendell's qualities, I'd have to say that Patricia Highsmith paved the way for her, and in that respect *she* is possibly the more influential.

June 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. I've read just one novel by each author (and I've seen some of the movies based on Highsmith's novels). This makes me no great judge on this question, so I'll ask this: How did Highsmith influence or pave the way for Ruth Rendell?

If it helps, the one Rendell title I've read is The Veiled One and the one Highsmith title The Tremor of Forgery. I've also seen Alfred Hitchcock's movie Strangers on a Train a number of times, and I like it very much. Given the changes Hitchcock often wrought on his source material, though, I can't be sure how closely the movie reflects Highsmith's novel.

June 07, 2008  
Anonymous fiona said...

Hmmm... well, in fairness I don't think Highsmith influences her Wexford novels much at all. However, the influence on the psychological novels is, I think, massive. (I'm not aware whether Rendell has claimed to be influenced by her or not, but they are certainly a very similar *type* of book, and no doubt even if Rendell has not widely read Highsmith, Highsmith paved the way for the kind of novel Rendell writes by setting a kind of precendent. (Which, in turn, paved the way for writers like Minette Walters.)

Highsmith and Rendell share a similar philsophy to life, I think: that danger is around the corner, that no one is safe, that life is at risk from silly, almost inconsequential things, that people may outwardly appear to be normal but could in fact pose great danger in the right circumstances. They're all full of the seemingly normal but inwardly a bit deranged.

June 07, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Now, that’s interesting, since The Veiled One was pretty psychological for a non-psychological novel. Any recommendations about where to start if I want to get an idea of what Rendell's psychological novels are like? Also, I wonder it the influence under discussion here extends to an author such as Karin Fossum.

That philosophy you mention would fit the film Strangers on a Train certainly, where a "silly, almost inconsequential" meeting sets the story in motion.

And thanks for your stimulating comments. They get my neurons firing.

June 07, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

My reason for singling out Rendell in my earlier comment was rather different -- the last of my three observations on her, as I said, and certainly not her work in the psychological subgenre alone, vast though its importance has been. I understand well what Fiona is getting at, but I must disagree for a few reasons. First, Rendell and Highsmith are vastly different, and I find it hard to think the latter influenced the former. There's a danger of post hoc ergo propter hoc -- that Rendell came after does not mean she necessarily came because. But, two, there's also the problem of regressive causality here -- if we owe Rendell to Highsmith, then we owe Highsmith to Bardin, whose three seminal novels (Deadly Percheron, Last of Philip Banter, Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly) were published 1946-48 and, as Julian Symons noted, very much foreshadowed Highsmith, whose first novel was published in 1950. But again, I think that in Bardin and Highsmith the psychological slants were sui generis and very different one from the other. We are discussing three writers with very unusual minds.

I do agree with Fiona re the role of contingency in both Rendell and Highsmith, but philosophical similarities end there. Highsmith's personal outlook on life was marked by what one critic called "rancid misanthropy", and Penzler in an interview described her attitude to people as relentlessly ugly. Rendell as a member of the House of Lords has spoken just this past session on genital mutilation, forced marriage, care for stroke victims, and the homeless. Her Wexford novels have dealt with social inequality, sex and race discrimination, the environment, labour exploitation, and domestic violence. Her psychological novels have much to do with family dysfunction and social and economic disadvantage. Empathy is crucial in Rendell, notoriously absent in Highsmith -- except, perhaps, in the least desirable sense.

If you want to try Rendell's psychological novels, Peter, may I suggest you start with A Judgement in Stone, a milestone and justly renowned, and then, perhaps, Live Flesh, A Demon in My View, A Fatal Inversion (written as Barbara Vine), and on from there.

June 08, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What I remember most about The Tremor of Forgery is not just that not much happens but that the novel is all about not much happening.

Again, having read just one novel by each of these authors, I have no idea how typical each book is of its author's style. But I will note that the one Rendell book I have read -- a Wexford novel -- has much to do with family dysfunction. And thanks for the suggestions. I just may revisit this discussion if I read more Rendell, Highsmith or both.

June 08, 2008  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home