I’m exhausted as I type this introduction, and it’s all because of The Mad and the Bad (Ô Dingos, Ô Châteaux, 1972; tr. from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith, 2014). See, I started it a couple of nights ago, and ended up staying up way too late to get to page 60. Last night, I thought I’d read a few more pages, and I ended up staying up even later to finish off the last 100 pages. So here I sit, bleary-eyed, but it was all worth it. If you’re looking for a messy crime novel — no, I don’t care if you’re looking or not: pick this one up.
In his introduction to the book, James Sallis says that Manchette considered crime novels to be “the great moral literature of our time.” Yet, seeking for morals in The Mad and the Bad is futile. Each character is deeply damaged — even the seven-year-old — and they each respond with some truly atrocious acts. It’s good to remember that this book came out in post-1968 France, and Jean-Patrick Manchette’s sensibilities seem to mesh well with filmmaker Jean Luc Godard, who was also making plenty of messy crime stories that remarked on what he and Manchette considered a failed political and economic system.
That’s not to suggest Manchette is overtly political, at the expense of the thrill (which is what I think happened to Godard in the late 1960s and 1970s). This book is disturbing, messy fun — I feel terrible for enjoying it so much, but I’m getting over it. I’m over it.
The book begins with a quick, inconsequential murder. A hit man named Thompson, “a man of around fifty with a British look about him,” is taking out “a pederast guilty of seducing the son of a businessman.” The killing is easy. The bigger problem is Thompson’s stomach cramps, which are to be getting worse. Perhaps it’s guilt? Perhaps it’s indigestion? At any rate, he would like to quit, but he’s got one more job: a child. Here’s the exchange when Thompson is shown a picture of this young hit:
“Does this bother you?
“Not at all,” said Thompson.
What bothered him was his stomach. It was starting again. The pain was back.
Meanwhile, we travel to an insane asylum in a nice Lincoln. The wealthy Hartog is finding a new nanny for his seven-year-old nephew, Peter. Hartog himself came into his wealth simply because his brother and sister-in-law died in a plane crash. He didn’t work for it, but now he’s a regarded philanthropist — by those who don’t have to deal with him face-to-face.
The new nanny is named Julie. She’s been at the asylum — voluntarily, she feels the need to emphasize at one point — for five years. Hartog arrives and bruskly tells her to get in the car. She’s shocked at the suddenness of it all. So is the director, who suggests Hartog take a little stroll with Julie, help her ease into her departure. “In her shoes, I am sure you would be a little panicked,” the director says.
“Sure, it would be perfectly awful for me,” said Hartog. He turned to Julie. “Come on, let’s go.”
The set up is done nicely, which must be terribly hard to do while maintaining such a quick pace. Before we know it — though I never felt it was rushed — Julie and her new ward, Peter, are running for their lives.
The violence is brutal and sudden, and though some of the characters pretend it’s their lifestyle, the only one who isn’t shocked to some extent with each unexpected (and expected) disposal of human life — or, at the least, a limb — is Thompson. No one else, not even those recruited to help Thompson, is prepared for the almost casual way someone can depart the world.
But, again, everyone is damaged in some way, everyone shows signs of being unhinged, even the otherwise professionally tenacious Thompson. One of the things that makes The Mad and the Bad even more propulsive is that the targets are just as likely to create some kind of mayhem:
[Julie] had to get rid of all these bastards who were out to destroy her. This was no time to lose her head. She would have loved to open fire with a machine gun and create a bloodbath.
The “bastards” Julie refers to are not Thompson and his cronies. Yes, everyone has had something stripped from them or forced upon them in this book where the violence is so casual all the guns look like toys. It’s hard to imagine those who survive won’t be even worse of for surviving.