Jean-Patrick Manchette 1982

The Roman Noir and Terrorism

First Published: Notes Noires in Polar no. 25, October 1982;
Source: Chroniques, Paris, 1996, Editions Payot;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor.

The contemporary detective novel has not yet grasped organized terrorism, while the classic roman noir had grasped organized crime...

It must be added that the classic roman noir had a blind spot when it came to terrorism. The period during which it flourished didn’t allow it to overcome this blindness. The genre, in its golden age, was fundamentally anti-fascist. So while it willingly deals with Nazi terrorism it systematically forgets Stalinist terrorism. Even during the Cold War only minor or decadent authors (Spillane and the “spy novel”) would exploit the fear of Reds while the honorable detective novel will remain stiffly faithful to its “left-wing” origins. (It is worthy of note that a man like Howard Fast, after having capitulated before the McCarthy commission, and while he subsequently defends , in his detective novels, nearly Petainist values – work, family, fatherland – continues to give a fascistoid appearance to the foreign dictatorships that persecute his heroes.)

Nevertheless, the roman noir was still in its golden age during the great criminal period of the Comintern (end of the ‘30’s beginning of the ‘40’s). Without counting the Russian purges, nor the liquidations carried out during the tumult of the wars (Spanish Civil War and the World War), the classic roman noir literally had before its eyes a multitude of kidnappings and assassinations we dare say every bit as novelistic as the acts of the Nazis. And it doesn’t bother with them. While its virtue lies in its criticizing the criminal organization of the world it forgets to criticize the principle politico-criminal form of this organization: the incongruous alliance of the democratic left with the GPU in order to constitute the camp of the “Good” in a world officially organized in two camps.

This blindness is not a hanging offense; it was the general blindness of an era. And even those who resisted some – a few political sects, a few philosophical schools, a few isolated intellectuals – generally suffered a theoretical involution that they never recovered from.

And just as that blindness is not a hanging offense, there is no especial merit in pointing it out now. The dawning of a new era has taught us a lesson.

That if we want to still indulge in novelistic frivolity we must not be beneath this lesson. The necessary correction of the literary past demands that “retro” writers, instead of fooling around with Bogart, Art Tatum, and F.D. Roosevelt, dissipate the blind spot of the classic roman noir. And contemporary detective novels, instead of fooling around with modernist writing (which itself has been “retro” for half a century) should find a minimum of dignity in the finally total practice of “critical realism” which, in its time, was not critical enough.