The Suffering Detective: Manchette’s No Room at the Morgue, translated from the French by Alyson Waters
by Don English
Manchette, Jean-Patrick. No Room at the Morgue, trans. from the French by Alyson Waters. NYRB Classics, 2020, $15.95, 208 pages. ISBN 9781681374185
Jean-Patrick Manchette (1942-1995) was a French novelist who, in addition to translating the works of American crime authors like Donald E. Westlake and Ross Thomas, wrote eleven groundbreaking crime novels of his own. They were originally published in France by Série Noire. Two of them were published in English translation by City Lights Books, and more recently, Alyson Waters and Donald Nicholson-Smith have been translating the remainder of his novels for New York Review Books Classics. No Room At The Morgue was his first detective novel.
Eugène Tarpon is a disgraced former cop failing, really only half trying, to make it as a private investigator in Paris. On the night he decides to give up and head back to the country to live with his mother, a woman named Memphis Charles enters his office and asks for his help — her roommate has been murdered and she is the most likely suspect. The victim’s blood is all over her clothes, her fingerprints are on the murder weapon. When Tarpon suggests her best option is to go to the police she knocks him out and runs. When he regains consciousness he decides to try and find her — maybe to help her, maybe it’s just an excuse to stay in the city a little longer.
As he slouches his way into the case Tarpon will encounter radicals stockpiling weapons and LSD (like good aging 60’s revolutionaries should), gangsters, American assassins who speak questionable French, and a deceased porn actor with a screen name inspired by a revolutionary.
In Alyson Waters’s English, Manchette’s writing has a tough and spare Dashiell Hammett-inspired style, but his novel is also pushing out the boundaries of the form. It’s a traditional detective story set in a much more modern background — the shadow of the May ’68 student protests. Classic tropes: a woman in trouble, gunfights, a knockout drug administered via cognac, rub up against confused angry revolutionaries compiling conspiracy theories, and pornography on the cusp of its 70’s mainstream legitimacy.
What I found most interesting about this book was Tarpon — a great example of the P.I. becoming a more modern character. Tortured protagonists are far from uncommon in detective stories, Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe and especially Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer carry a pervasive sadness — but none of their character traits are ever really examined or explained. Tarpon’s sadness and suffering is given more of a backstory than was common for the genre at that time.
One of the cops Tarpon meets describes him as “a man broken by alcohol and regret.” He quit the police after killing a protestor at a demonstration and the memory haunts him. Manchette uses the detective novel’s vocabulary of sarcasm to examine Tarpon’s guilt at a distance without letting the character wallow in self-pity. Tarpon refuses to acknowledge his feelings. Every time a memory of the killing surfaces he shrugs and pushes it away.
Tarpon seems to be made to suffer; he’s broke, his business is failing, he’s isolated despite having been interviewed about the killing on a TV news program that guarantees he’s recognized everywhere he goes. He left no friends behind on the force — he’s dispatched from a crime scene “with hard kicks to [his] ass.” Even the TV show was cancelled after his interview.
He’s not a cool audience identification character either — he’s awkward, not especially handsome, and his narration of the story is much funnier than anything he says out loud to any of the other characters. He’s out of step with the modern world; when he awakes at the beginning of the novel it’s like he has slept right through the 60’s.
In the earliest part of the novel the guitarist for a Jazz Rock band asks for help with an extortion threat he’s received. Tarpon doesn’t know that a rock band would need a PA system to play music live — and despite the fact the band is named The Function Of The Orgasm he doesn’t even make fun of their terrible name. Later in the story he only vaguely recognizes a poster of Mick Jagger in the victim’s apartment. He doesn’t have much of an opinion about the modern world, he just doesn’t understand it.
In his afterword Howard A. Rodman quotes Manchette:
Re-employing an obsolete form implies employing it referentially, honoring it by criticizing it, exaggerating it, distorting it from top to bottom.
Certainly the story distorts; there are parts of it that border on surreal. At one point Tarpon is abducted and forced into the back seat of a limo with a man who silently stares at him while weeping and shaving with an electric razor — a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen Brothers movie.
Tarpon is horrified by the disorganized violent methods of the revolutionaries he meets and despises Foran, another cop gone private who’s a racist and a nationalist — but he doesn’t understand the socialist books given to him by the tailor who lives upstairs from him. He commits violence easily throughout the story but is sickened by it. He tries to do the right thing, he just doesn’t seem to know why. He’s a detective in search of a simpler mystery.
This book reminded me a little of Robert Altman’s film adaptation of The Long Goodbye, which came out the same year this book was first published. Tarpon, like Elliot Gould’s Marlowe, begins the story after awakening from a deep sleep and then tries to navigate a violent modern world, muttering to himself.
This is a sharp and funny novel, with a quick-moving plot and well-defined characters that blends a classic detective style with modern flourish. It doesn’t show the P.I. novel as an obsolete form, it beckons it into the future. This was the first of two novels featuring Tarpon; the second is currently being translated by Alyson Waters to be released by NYRB Classics in 2022. I look forward to seeing how this detective continues to cope with his modern world.
Don English is a writer and legal aid worker. His work has been published in the Vancouver Courier, Poetry is Dead, Medium, and most recently in Akashic Books’ Vancouver Noir anthology. He lives in East Vancouver, British Columbia, with a view of the docks.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, February 16, 2021