Jean-Patrick Manchette 1976
Source: Chroniques, Paris, 1996, Editions Payot;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2009.
In the classic detective novel (i.e., the mystery detective novel) crime disturbs the order of the law, which it is crucial must be restored by the discovery of the guilty party and his elimination from the social field. The investigation might well reveal the evil desires of almost every character, but these desires are inherent to human nature, considered with resignation by the author and his investigator. In as much as these desires don’t result in a passing to the act (crime), the best solution consists in again casting a veil over them. And so the private (and preferably amateur) detective is a more appropriate hero than the official police, who are a public enterprise. In the same way the guilty party’s suicide is the most elegant form of his elimination, a form which avoids the publicity of a trial and execution, and which in any event adds no supplement of guilt to the sad, varied, and necessary incarnations of evil human nature around it. The investigator alone will bear the responsibility for the wrong done to the guilty party, the weight of guilt attached to his necessary action – and he will also occasionally consume cocaine or cassoulets, and will play chess or perhaps the violin, in this way being able to bear eternal evil and (demonstrating his own humanity) sacrificing to it.
In the violent and realist criminal novel of the American type (the roman noir) the order of the law is not good; it is transitory and in contradiction with itself. Phrased differently, evil dominates historically. Evil’s domination is social and political. Social and political power is exercised by bastards. More precisely, by unscrupulous capitalists, allies of or identical to gangsters brought together in organizations, having in their pay politicians, journalists, and other ideologues, as well as justice ,the police, and other henchmen. And this throughout the land where these people, divided into clans, fight among themselves by all means possible to gain control of markets and profits. We can recognize here a more or less analogous image of capitalist society in general to the one we find in revolutionary critiques. This is obvious.
Less obviously and yet surely, the roman noir is characterized by the absence or weakness of the class struggle and its replacement by individual action (which is, incidentally, hopeless). While the bastards and the exploiters in fact hold social and political power, the others – the exploited , the masses of people – are no longer the subject of history, and in any case only appear in the roman noir in minor roles, more or less socially marginalized – taxi drivers, racial minorities (blacks, chicanos), vagabonds, the unemployed, déclassé intellectuals, servile personnel (but also, in surprising numbers, in the figure of workers, always especially mistreated before or during the novel’s action by the bosses, big shots and their strong-arm men).
Here the class struggle is not absent in the same way as in the mystery detective novel. It is simply that here the exploited have been defeated and are forced to suffer under the reign of evil. This reign is the field of the roman noir, a field in which and against which the actions of the hero are organized. When this hero is not himself a bastard fighting for his tiny portion of power and money (as is the case in the early novels of James Hadley Chase) when he (as is the case in Hammett and Chandler) knows what good and evil are, he is nothing but virtue in a world without virtue. He can right a few wrongs, but he will never right the general wrong of this world; he knows this, and this is the source of his bitterness.
We can see why the great period of the roman noir is located in the final period of triumphant counter-revolution (approximately from 1920-1950), and especially its culmination in the different fascisms and the war. The definition of the roman noir as a principally anti-fascist novel, though strange, does not appear to us to have been refuted. (This is what explains why the roman noir can so easily be accused of fascism, or give place to fascist derivations or imitations. Fascism and anti-fascism are of course the complementary forms by which the counter-revolution chains the proletariat to its estate.)
The end of the counter-revolution and the return to the proletarian offensive are, in the long run, the end of everything for the intellectual professions. Among other things, the roman noir will soon disappear, a phenomenon that represents a notable amount of worthless importance. For a while yet it can cast its final flames (wet, like dreams) by amalgamating with the cinema, pop music, and other cultural commerce in the pitiful mise-en-scène of the final individual revolts, i.e., of the backwardness and also the impatience of the young thief, the madman, the terrorist ( items not limited to those on this list). But soon the movement towards communism will dissolve all backwardness and satisfy all impatience.
PS – It does not follow from this that having as they say passed one’s youth writing romans noirs or for the Nouvelles Littéraires (items are not limited to those on this list) are things that will be automatically forgiven.
– Les Nouvelles littéraires, no. 2565, December 30, 1976