Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review: The Mad and the Bad

The Mad and the Bad The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Julie has lived the last several years in an insane asylum. Hartog is a rich man out to kill his nephew so he can tighten his grip on the family fortune. Thompson is a hired killer with an ulcer that may be psychosomatic. And Peter is a seriously spoiled brat. Every piece of this novel has an odd shape. Yeah, you know they’re all going to come together, but that doesn’t keep it from being a hell of a lot of fun.

The phrase I finally settled on for this one is “Dashiell Hammett meets It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” A la Hammett, there’s a decently plotted story that serves as the frame for odd characters to exercise their idiosyncratic takes on the world and the violence in it. Like “Sunny,” every character is more or less morally demented. I hope it’s not too much of a [SPOILER] to note that Julie, our titular heroine, has no compunction about bludgeoning to death a man who has considerately given her a ride. And Peter almost gleefully shoots his uncle in the eye with an arrow. Those are the good guys, and that means we’re playing in a pretty amoral, comically hardboiled universe.

Part of the fun here is the realization that Hartog has hired Julie as Peter’s nanny not in spite of her supposed insanity, but because of it. He wants her to be an obvious suspect in his kidnapping and death. She’s a sick woman, and she’s set up. That ought to be enough for a by-the-numbers thriller.

But Manchette goes farther. He gives us a Julie who is not merely supposed to be nuts, but who is indeed nuts. She’s a paranoid woman – and we get little to explain why – who has inadvertently picked up real enemies. He gives us a Thompson, someone who might have walked out of a mid-career Elmore Leonard novel, but he puts him in a different context. This may be the same universe that Leonard explored at the same time, but it’s a different corner of it. In Leonard, we’d likely see this Thompson as representative of some aspect of American pyscho-sickness. In Manchette, he just sort of is. We get no explanation, just a kind of readerly pleasure in his weirdness.

I encourage you to read the introduction/appreciation by James Sallis, whose Drive is one of the outstanding hardboiled works of this generation. He calls attention to Manchette’s minimalist ability to show that sick weirdness, and, as he does so, he makes clear how his own work is an extension of it.

Some parts of this do feel a bit dated, but they have the excuse of being a good generation old. Manchette was clearly ahead of his time. Thanks to this New York Review of Books Press reissue, we get the chance to catch up with him.

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