Jean-Patrick Manchette 1978

The Founding Fathers

First Published: Charlie Mensuel no. 108, January 1978;
Source: Chroniques, Paris, 1996, Editions Payot;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2009.

By the beginning of the 1920s the first wave of the communist revolution had been defeated everywhere. In the thirty years that followed, from fascism to anti-fascism, from Stalinism to Hitlerism, from World War to Cold War, capital ruled. And it ruled with no competition. The proletariat, torn to pieces by the enemy and sodomized by its own leaders, had ceased to dispute the field (this will return; it has returned). It was only tiny groupuscules or isolated individuals – provisionally defeated, sometimes patient, sometimes bitter and despairing – who opposed the bastards who occupied the field, all the fields of the world, which they made into a world market and the site of their gang war.

In American literature, this gave us the detective novel, the private eye. It gave us a bunch of other things, but in the first place, the private eye. The private eye is bitter and patient and a tad hopeless because shit rules and he sees that he won’t succeed all on his own. And also because living in shit and blood and fighting disgusting people changes the private eye; it makes him unfeeling and tough, which is another way of being defeated.

Dashiell Hammett invented the Continental Op in 1923, Sam Spade in 1929 (and a bit later he will invent the gentle Nick Charles). Raymond Chandler invented Philip Marlowe in around ’38 or ’39. This was the Golden Age of the private eye and the detective novel. The most disgusting and murderous period of modern times was the Golden Age of the detective novel. If you haven’t yet read all of Hammett and all of Chandler you will enjoy doing so, or else I’ll eat my hat and trench coat. ..

The mystery novel is the great moral literature of our era. Or more precisely, of the era that has just ended: that of the counter-revolution ruling without competition. The private eye is the great moral hero of that era. He is also a vein worth mining. Many have followed in the footsteps of Hammett and Chandler. Some have understood that it is his virtue that constitutes the grandeur of the private eye. Some haven’t. ..

All these guys are moral. “No one gives a damn, right?” Terry Lennox asks Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s film “The Long Goodbye,” well adapted by Leigh Brackett, and this while Terry Lennox has just enumerated his crimes and is laughing because he took advantage of Marlowe’s friendship for him. And Marlowe (in the film) answers him: “Me, I don’t not give a damn,” and he shoots a bullet into Terry Lennox’s heart, and then turns towards the vast rotten world in a shot taken directly from “Nights of Cabiria;” and there he is with his morality, his ideal, his virtue, going off – like the valiant little Christian whore of Fellini – back to work.

These guys are moral I say. Now that the revolution has returned to the streets of the world, all of this stuff is fading away and we have the “new detective novel.” It isn’t as good as the old one but we’ll talk about it again one of these days. But for the moment, let’s have some quiet as Marlowe goes off into the trees, and he himself is silent, but we can hear that the music.