“If I had to give [my work] a general theme, it would be something along the lines of ‘How the hell did it all come to this?’” -J-P Manchette
Crimereads features a fascinating discussion and exploration of the themes animating the final work of the writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, and why he abandoned the crime novel. Obviously, reports of the crime novel’s death are greatly exaggerated. Their number, variety and loyal followers attest to it. But I was intrigued by the lure he felt for the fusion of noir fiction, spy thriller, and political history.
Manchette cites many of my favorites, like John Le Carre and Ross Thomas as having been very influential in his embrace of a new aesthetic. As Ethan Anderson put it in his ‘Do The M@th‘ blog about Ross Thomas’s work: “Thomas’s outsized passion for the mid-century American system gave his books a unique ambience, at once humorously bitter and happily jaded.” For his part, LeCarre gave us the anti-James Bond, George Smiley, a quiet, pudgy, near-sighted cuckold.
When I come to write the stories that grab me, I’m drawn to this noir-spy hybrid. It’s a rich vein of crime and realpolitic, combining detective work and contemporary politics—a “who dunnit” (and why), plus “who gets power and why.” Leavening this compelling mixture is the fact that the things government (and quasi-government) operatives do to achieve their ends are often downright criminal, adding a noir level of complexity and moral uncertainty.
Call this suspense-thriller genre “Noirpolitic.”
Putting characters into a story where not only crime but competing values are involved makes for rich, vivid storytelling. The tales of Le Carre and Thomas, though exemplars of the suspense-thriller genre, are generally less concerned with the literally ticking time bomb, and more about what’s going wrong and how to right it.
To Manchette’s list of influential writers in this hybrid genre, I would add Graham Greene. His “entertainments,” like The Quiet American, The Third Man, Our Man in Havana and The Honorary Consul are extraordinary. Political events are not just backdrops for Greene’s and the others’ stories, they are integral, giving deeper meaning to the characters’ struggles and to the stakes if they fail. They inform the stories and give them an edge, whether it be Viet Nam as the Americans replace the French (Quiet American), or the gullible Agency in Our Man in Havana. As I struggle to write engaging thrillers, I keep these and other works in my mind, not to copy, but as strong examples of all that’s possible.
To write now, in the context of the decline of democracy, the rise of nationalism, backlash against globalism, fraying political alliances and norms, is to stare at a reality that’s all too noir.
Situational morality, suspect propaganda and win-at-any-cost gambits used to be the province of clandestine agencies. Now it’s mainstream politics. If, with apologies to Carl von Clausewitz, “politics is war by other means,” then we are simultaneously the prize to be won and the foe.
“How the hell did it all come to this?” is a question we should all be asking.