The Book Jean-Patrick Manchette Didn’t Live to Finish


Arts & Culture


Ivory Pearl is the lion’s share of a book that, sadly, Jean-Patrick Manchette—polymath, chess whiz, jazz superenthusiast, comic-book lover, literary genius—didn’t live to finish. Like Boris Vian, who also died young, Manchette was impossibly overgifted, able to do anything supremely well with playful grace and intelligence. Like Vian, he was an artist whose work was matched by a beautiful personality, an artist one falls in love with. 

After a seven-year break from novel writing, freshly inspired by the espionage thrillers of Ross Thomas and John le Carré, Manchette saw a way forward, envisioning stories spread across a wider terrain than the French settings of his other works. Starting with Ivory Pearl, the series would follow its characters far into the second half of the twentieth century, much the way the three finished volumes of Jean-Paul Sartre’s planned tetralogy, The Roads to Freedom, track diverse Parisians from prewar café society through the “phony war,” the real war, and the German occupation.

The final chapters of Ivory Pearl exist only as notes left by the author, edited by his son. Even in this incomplete state, however, the novel brilliantly manifests the simultaneities and expansive purview Manchette intended.

Samuel Farakhan was not sleeping. In thrall to the dubious lucidity of insomnia, he was sitting in his private study smoking a Player’s Navy Cut, both hands trembling slightly in the white light of a desk lamp wreathed in the fine smoke of the English cigarettes. In Budapest, Rákosi had resigned under pressure from the Russians and János Kádár and the social democrat György Marosán, long imprisoned for fascist Titoism but recently rehabilitated, had entered the Party’s Political Bureau, while certain spokespeople of the Petőfi Circle were calling for the reinstatement of Imre Nagy. This was why Lajos had said somewhat laughingly that afternoon that “Perhaps I should return to Hungary, perhaps things are really going to budge this time and I should ask my American friends to sneak me back in.”

Manchette knew that we don’t know the laws of history. But he believed Ivory Pearl and its sequels might illuminate, for himself and his readers, how the power tectonics and changing mores of the decades he’d lived through produced the global mess we live in now.

In the seventies, Manchette reconstituted the roman policier as a sleek vehicle for social critique, producing eleven wildly original novels, their impact still being felt today. In Manchette’s devising, the néo-polar has little to do with crime solving or the police (though he invented an existentially troubled detective, Eugène Tarpon, in Que d’os! and Morgue pleine). For Manchette, whatever justice the system dispenses is itself a predictable criminal enterprise, hardly worth a paragraph. His fictions play out in a more atavistic realm of private vendettas and mercenary slaughter, supervised by “higher-ups” with far more power than any police. The stupendous violence in Three to Kill issues from a paramilitary thug’s decision to snuff a witness who doesn’t know he is one. In The Prone Gunman, the killer-for-hire Martin Terrier works for an organization so heavily veiled that it might very well be the government, but even he isn’t sure.

Like his compatriot writers Didier Daeninckx and Patrick Modiano, Manchette was haunted by France’s infamies during the German occupation and the independence struggles of French colonies (L’affaire N’Gustro, one of his first novels, is based on the 1965 abduction and presumed torture-death of the Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka), though much of this happened during his childhood or before he was born. Disillusioned by the wane of radical energies after May 1968, taking cues from Dashiell Hammett and Guy Debord, Manchette depicted a demoralized, melancholic society where legal authority routinely delegates its monopoly of violence to syndicates and goons, crime pays very well, and the cops always get a cut of the take. Everyday life’s banal surfaces seethe with antlike humans dazzled by advertising and consumer products and deadened by jobs and television. The only interruption of the scanning pattern happens when violence slashes into an otherwise mediocre existence.

Manchette’s view is bleak, matter-of-fact, risibly acerbic in its descriptions of carnage. Today it seems indisputably accurate as well. Derisive of reactionaries, the bourgeoisie, doctrinaire leftists, and anyone else with an answer for everything, Manchette never completely obscures his longing for better times, and better people, but his nose for emotional fatuity is too sharp to indulge it. The romance of revolutionary action fares no better. His farcical Nada illustrates the idea that if you’re part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. The Nada Gang’s kidnapping of the U.S. ambassador translates the back-ring strategies of the early seventies Baader-Meinhof RAF and the Italian Red Brigades into asinine, bloody slapstick. A connoisseur of unintended consequences, Manchette surely would have scorned the resurgent folly that people living in the present can “decide to be on the right side of history”—as if the future, however often it arrives as a train wreck, inevitably starts up again in the direction of Utopia. The best we can do, Manchette implies, is to stay on the right side of our own sense of decency—or try to.

Despite their unrelieved violence, or perhaps because of its antic excess, Manchette’s crime novels are wickedly cheerful, an inexhaustible pleasure to read. They sport characters so hollowed out and damaged that the adventures they embark on, often unwillingly and unwittingly, peel off whatever moral veneer and certainly whatever squeamishness they possess. If they finish up unimproved or destroyed, it must be noted that they were nothing special to begin with— sleepwalkers of capitalism, basically. But for a time, they become compelling, forced to scramble for their lives against monstrous opponents. Frequently ripped from their urban comfort zones and hounded into wastelands of alien wilderness, isolated cabins, rural villages, and the like, reduced to eating berries and raw snake meat, they tap into a resourcefulness that suggests, at least to our imagination, different paths their lives might travel if they ever reach safety. When they’re not dodging assassination, Manchette’s personae listen to West Coast jazz, which indicates at least some dormant inner life.

Manchette’s behaviorist style favors fractal glimpses of people rather than longueurs of subjectivity. Inner twaddle doesn’t interest him. In prose so spare and precise it looks shaved with a straight razor, he brings people (and landscapes, buildings, ordinary objects) into vital clarity.

The man could have been thirty or a little over … His eyes were neither dark nor very pale. Ivy had a good close-up view of him through her 200 mm telephoto lens. He had a wide forehead beneath an unkempt shock of tow hair, strands of which fell over his ears. He was athletic, well built and deeply tanned …

Between his left nipple and his collarbone, a round scar was visible, absolutely white and roughly the size of a half dollar. When the hunter swung around with the black pig over his shoulders, Ivy could see his back, with on its left side a growth of gray and white scar tissue as big as a small tomato. Clearly the man had been run through by something …

His characters take shape through fleeting expressions, gestures, physical sensations (the weight of a holstered gun against an armpit, say, or, in The Mad and the Bad, the killer Thompson’s churning gastritis), and dialogue as artlessly awkward as fumbling everyday speech. Everything in Manchette’s novels is revealed through instability and menace. This is true of Ivory Pearl as well as the néo-polars, but Ivory Pearl differs from them in several interesting ways.

One striking difference is the immediate sympathy elicited for the principals—the famous war photographer Ivory Pearl; her mentor, the brewing heir and retired British army officer Samuel Farakhan; Farakhan’s Hungarian boyfriend, Lajos Obersoxszki; the fugitives Ivory Pearl meets in Cuba, Victor Maurer and Negra. These are fleshed out with fuller backstories and more appealing personal traits than most of Manchette’s earlier creatures, who often behave like panicking lab rats. Readers want Fatale’s Aimée Joubert or The Prone Gunman’s Martin Terrier to prevail mainly because their antagonists are even more twisted than they are. We root for Ivory Pearl, Farakhan, and the others, however, because they have clean hearts, despite the toxic secrets and agendas they conceal from one another. It can also be argued that the villains of the piece—not the hired psychopath Guido and his hit squad but the casually murderous arms dealer Aaron Black, his streamlined assistant Julienne, and his son Simon, a moron—loom as avatars of their kind, giant pollinators of an ugly zeitgeist, rather than merely evil as shit. Society needs such people. That is the problem Manchette is getting at.

Another difference is this novel’s treatment of time. As already mentioned, Manchette’s crime novels evoke a stagnant, reactionary period in France—the interminable seventies, in which revolutionary violence was answered with repressive brutality, spreading a form of collective clinical depression. This despairing atmosphere is perfectly evoked in such films as Jacques Rivette’s Le Pont du Nord and Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably. Manchette’s novels of the era note passing time by seasonal changes and alternations of night and day; exact months and years go unremarked, since the rotten state of things promises to drag on forever. In a way, this is slightly ameliorative; the minimal temporal mooring permits us to read Fatale or Three to Kill as hellish fairy tales floating in a vaguely familiar limbo: “And sometimes what used to happen was what is happening now: Georges Gerfaut is driving on Paris’s outer ring road.” When was then and when is now are equally fuzzy.

Ivory Pearl has its fairy-tale dimensions; timelessness isn’t one of them. The novel begins on New Year’s Day in 1956, and every significant action that follows is practically date-stamped and aligned with world events of that year, one of the frostiest of the early Cold War.

An inventory of pertinent milestones:

In February, the British spies Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, missing for five years, turn up in Moscow. In a closed session, Khrushchev denounces Stalin to the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, citing numerous crimes (in which Khrushchev and most of his audience have been loyally complicit).

In March, Morocco and then Tunisia declare independence from France. Pakistan becomes the first Islamic republic.

In May, Minister of State Pierre Mendès-France, having negotiated the French withdrawal from Indochina two years earlier, resigns from the government over its Algeria policy. Meanwhile, fighting between the Vietcong and the U.S.-backed ARVN enters its second year.

In June, the Algerian National Liberation Front commences guerrilla warfare with random shootings of civilians. Gamal Nasser becomes the second president of Egypt. Government troops crush a popular uprising in Poland.

In July, Nasser nationalizes the Suez Canal.

In August, at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, a movement to replace Richard Nixon with the Massachusetts governor Christian Herter as the vice presidential candidate for Eisenhower’s second term fails.

In October, the Hungarian uprising, partly sparked by the Petőfi Circle of intellectuals led by Georg Lukács, precipitates the Soviet army’s invasion of Hungary. Israel invades the Sinai, driving the Egyptian army back to Suez. The United Kingdom and France begin bombing Egypt to reopen the Suez Canal—France in retaliation for Egypt’s support of the Algerian FLN.

In early November, Dwight D. Eisenhower is reelected to the American presidency, with Richard Nixon as his vice president.

In late November, Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, Che Guevara, and seventy-nine other fighters set out on the yacht Granma from Tuxpan, Mexico, landing on December 2 at Playa Las Coloradas and taking refuge in the Sierra Maestra in Cuba.

Connections between the cast of Ivory Pearl and these distant happenings dash in and out of sight like livid tapestry threads under shining light: Farakhan was at Cambridge with Burgess and Maclean; a progressive journal whose board he sits on, probably funded by the CIA, receives a leaked copy of Khrushchev’s speech, which prompts the Hungarian revolt to go forward; Aaron Black sells weapons to all sides of the Algerian conflict, jets around sniffing out markets for the all-new AK-47, and presumably funnels money to Richard Nixon; photographs taken by Ivory Pearl in the Sierra Maestra, passed to French and American intelligence, trigger dire actions, separately, by Lajos Obersoxszki, Farakhan, and Aaron Black, et cetera, et cetera.

Manchette compels us to examine the stories we tell ourselves in light of the bigger oppressive stories unfolding around us, to think about history as something we collectively make as well as something that makes us. Contingency and chance decide much of what happens in this novel, but the individual characters also make decisions of their own, and their actions ripple powerfully into the world at large. I’ve avoided discussing the actual plot of Ivory Pearl, in the outcome of which whole governments, waging proxy wars all over the planet, have a significant stake. That story is a Shakespearean drama of dynastic succession and inheritance. Its various loose threads, gathered from scattered sites where blood and capital run together, suddenly tighten into a garrote. The intrepidly calculated time scheme of this novel suggests either a world on the verge of transformation or an immutable process taking its fatal course, obscured by endless cover stories.

Since the question is still with us, we can only wish Manchette had lived to answer it to his own satisfaction. Instead, he left us this masterpiece.


Gary Indiana is a critic and novelist. His most recent books include I Can Give You Anything But Love, a memoir, and Tiny Fish That Only Want to Kiss, a collection of short fiction. His writing has appeared in New York magazine, the New York Times, Vice, the London Review of Books, and many other publications.

Excerpted from Gary Indiana’s introduction to Ivory Pearl, by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Published in English by NYRB Classics.