OBITUARY:Jean-Patrick Manchette

Manchette means a cuff on the sleeve of a jacket or a shirt, but in underworld slang les manchettes means handcuffs. So it is a sweet irony that Jean-Patrick Manchette was a leading French crime writer, and indeed a renovator of the genre made universally popular by Georges Simenon and Leo Malet.

In the early 1970s French thrillers had become calcified in a formal stereotype familiar to whodunnit fans from the films of Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo - displaying the usual production panoply of Cote d'Azur, Pigalle, Marseille, Corsican gangsters and their molls, casinos, cabarets, banks, drugs, blackmail and drink. (Manchette also means the "head" on a glass of beer, notoriously outsize in France.)

Thrillers were in danger of being displaced in the post-1968 generation by science fiction sagas, when Manchette caused a sensation in 1971 with his first new-wave thriller (written in collaboration with Jean-Pierre Bastid), Laissez bronzer les cadavres ("Give the Corpses a Sunbath"), in direct descent from Boris Vian's unorthodox and disrespectful pastiches J'irai cracher sur vos tombes ("I'll Go and Spit on your Tombs", 1946) and Les Morts ont tous la meme peau ("The Dead are All the Same Under the Skin", 1947) and Leo Malet's La Vie est degueulasse ("Life's a Load of Shit", 1948) which heralded the coming fad for the roman noir.

Manchette's study in black appeared in the prestigious, still running Gallimard series "Serie noire" and was followed in the same year by his L'Affaire N'Gustro, signed by himself alone. It was the start of Manchette's life as a thriller-writer, film scenarist and occasional journalist.

He wrote from a left-wing political viewpoint, using the language of the working class, with a strong Trotskyite ideology. He was also a witness to his time. L'Affaire N'Gustro was based on an actual event, the kidnapping and assassination of Mehdi Ben Barka, and strongly influenced by Jean- Paul Sartre's L'Enfance d'un chef.

Later, Manchette became an admirer of Guy Debord and followed his lead in fictional denunciations of establishment society as set out in La Societe du spectacle (1967). Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, James Cain and David Goodis were his preferred American models. Novels like Nada (1972), with its nihilist tone, Le Petit Bleu de la cote Ouest ("West Coast Wine", 1976) and La Position du tireur couche ("The Recumbent Marksman", 1981) all appeared in the "Serie noire", the latter and his final work being bought by Alain Delon who made it into a commercial flop.

Manchette had a Scots grandmother whose chief reading was thrillers, and she influenced his literary tastes from childhood, and taught him English so that he was able to make deft translations of some of his favourite American masters like Donald Westlake and Ross Thomas and others introduced in the "Serie noire".

Jean-Patrick Manchette had been preparing a long novel set in Castro's Cuba before he died. Entitled La Princesse du sang ("Princess of the Blood"), all that remains of it are his notes, which of course he called his "Notes noires".

Just a couple of months ago, when I was buying a new stock of "Serie noire" thrillers, the bookseller presented me with a free copy of Noces d'or 1945-1995 ("Golden Wedding 1945-1995") celebrating 50 years of the series. It opens with a tribute to Jean-Patrick Manchette. His Mise a feu ("Death by Fire") begins enticingly: "The letter said that Lucie had been raped and murdered." It is part of his last unfinished work, again politically "engaged", about a revolutionary in exile in Latin America. That Manchette should have been placed first in very distinguished "Serie noire" company is a just appreciation of his importance in the world of crime fiction.

James Kirkup

Jean-Patrick Manchette, writer: born Marseilles 19 December 1942; died Paris 3 June 1995.

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