by Jean-Patrick Manchette
translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith
New York Review Books, 170 pages
reviewed by Ryan K. Strader
The young heiress of a black market arms dealer is kidnapped, a kidnapper is decapitated, there are two fiery explosions, one man has been shot through and is still roaming around, and there is a rescue attempt. The rescue might be an inside operation, or it might be another kidnapping. The young heiress has vanished with a violent man who might be good or might be bad, and there are some other people looking for her, who might be good or might be bad.
All this occurs on the first nine pages of Ivory Pearl. The bloody mayhem is dexterous and supple, perfectly choreographed and so cool. The cars are shiny and Italian, the weapons are exotic and expertly wielded.
Ivory Pearl is Jean-Patrick Manchette’s final and unfinished novel, now available in an English translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Manchette was known during his lifetime for his 1970s crime novels, noir that gained popular movie adaptations and made him a standard among French crime writers. This translation features endnotes on how Manchette envisioned the novel ending, and an introduction written by Manchette’s son, Doug Headline, which is as affectionate as it is informative. While Ivory Pearl certainly has many noir characteristics, it is more of a spy thriller than a crime novel. The main character, Ivory Pearl, is an interesting riff on the femme fatale. A photographer with an “alarming predilection for pictures of dead bodies,” Ivy can shoot a gun, build herself a table with a machete, and charm Malaysian guerillas into posing for pictures.
Like many noir antiheroes, Ivy has no family: an orphan who escaped a French orphanage at age 13 during World War II, she was adopted and protected by a group of British troops who dubbed her “Ivory Pearl,” “Ivy” for short. While loitering around with the troops, she meets Samuel Farakhan, a closeted gay officer who comes up with a clever plan: he will become Ivy’s patron, sending her off to a Swiss private school and giving her a life she could only dream of, if in return she will visit him and appear to enjoy his affection. Their relationship will provide cover for his homosexuality, and launch Ivy into a safer life, not to mention a higher social class.
This seems like a win/win, except the reader gets a sense that there’s more to Farakhan than meets the eye. His assessment of Ivy’s character is shrewd and utilitarian: the Swiss school will “enhance your talents,” he assures Ivy, but he is confident that they cannot change her personality. “I am fairly sure it is already formed,” he assures her. He has picked Ivy for some reason, but we’re not yet sure why.
Fast forward to Ivy’s mid-twenties. Her childhood familiarity with soldiers and war, married to her Swiss education and Farakhan’s wealth and connections, have paid off well. Ivy is a famous photographer, having been embedded with several militaries around the globe and selling pictures to Paris Match and Life. We’re not sure if anyone believes that Farakhan isn’t gay, but we do know that his career hasn’t suffered, so we can guess that developing a globe-trotting benefactress has worked for his military image. And in noirish fashion, if anyone wants to doubt his affection for Ivy, Farakhan has an impressive collection of semi-automatic handguns with which to silence them.
This is a clever premise for a thriller, but of course it’s only half of the story: Farakhan isn’t just any officer, and he didn’t just pick Ivy because she was pretty and homeless. Illicit motivations and machinations emerge through the story, and just when it seems that our main characters have some clarity on why they are in the predicament they’re in, new information turns the situation on its head.
Ivy tires of the spotlight and wants to retreat to do nature photography, and Farakhan suggests the perfect place for her to go: Cuba. While camping in the Sierra Maestra, Ivy meets a mysterious man sheltering a teenage girl…what a strange coincidence. Is this Alba Black, the kidnapped heiress of Aaron Black, a notorious American arms dealer? What is really motivating the girl’s protector, Maurer? Why was she kidnapped in the first place? And how did she and Ivy come to be on the same mountain in Cuba?
I have heard noir described as the existentialist version of crime literature, and while that might not always hold true, it does for Ivory Pearl. Interestingly, the questions that Ivory Pearl grapples with seem to mirror her creator’s frustration with his own historical role. While the 1970s had been a prolific period for Manchette, he did not write an original novel during the 1980s. Manchette embraced “leftist” politics and had seen noir crime as a subversive genre, a niche style of writing that went against the cultural grain. His son, Headline, describes how Manchette felt that the crime novel had become big business, “a cultural commodity integrated into the order of things,” and no long able to make waves in any cultural or political discussion. Headline writes: “If one were to assign him (Manchette) a dominant character trait, it would have to be the moral rectitude exemplified by the intransigence he showed himself as much as others. He therefore felt obligated to search for a new form, and a new field, for fear of losing his soul.” In its admirable form, “intransigence” is resoluteness and unwillingness to compromise. In its less admirable moments, this is pigheadedness and unwillingness to understand others. Interestingly, Ivy struggles to figure out her place in history with some of the same character foibles: she is intransigent, resolute, and has difficulty with compromise.
This double-edged character trait greatly complicates questions of loyalty and moral consistency. Is Ivy morally consistent? She will join the British troops as they fight Communist guerillas, then switch to the guerrillas, then sell all of her pictures. She follows Farakhan’s suggestions about where to go and what to photograph, even when she knows that his role in politics is shadowy, and his goals are unclear. Is loyalty to him as a substitute father more important, or is there an ideal at stake? And what about the girl, who goes by “Negra,” and who becomes attached to Ivy? What kind of loyalty and fundamental values are at stake when, inevitably, a hit squad arrives for her?
Manchette is frequently quoted as having said that the mystery novel is “the great moral literature of our era,” and his son claims that despair at the genre’s loss of moral focus is what kept Manchette from writing for the better part of a decade.
Manchette is frequently quoted as having said that the mystery novel is “the great moral literature of our era,” and his son claims that despair at the genre’s loss of moral focus is what kept Manchette from writing for the better part of a decade. As intriguing as questions about Ivy’s personal beliefs and consistency are, the novel itself seems to be asking a larger moral question about how individuals participate in history. Ivy’s attempt to withdraw from her fame as a war photographer is also an attempt to withdraw from the events of her time. Manchette seems to ask us: Can we excise ourselves from our historical moment? Or are we all, whether we like it or not, actors in an unmitigated conflict, barely free to choose the side we fight for? If we cannot “withdraw” from history, is it then our obligation to try to make a historical difference? Judging from Doug Headline’s notes on how Manchette intended to conclude the novel, Manchette would say that no one can recuse themselves from history and that while Ivy is certainly a reluctant actor, her reluctance makes her easily manipulable by people like Farakhan, who believe they have historical agency. Maurer remains a bit of a mystery—we know very little about him except that he is a badass who can yield a parang (a Malaysian knife) with dangerous precision—it’s tempting to think of him as a mountain man, but he has some semi-courtly manners and a complex sense of justice that leads me to believe he would have helped to draw out Ivy’s (and perhaps Manchette’s) thoughts on what it might mean to work for what is “right” in whatever historical context we find ourselves living in.
Manchette began writing Ivory Pearl in 1989, the same year he was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1995, leaving us 150 finished pages, minus the notes on the novel’s intended conclusion.
Through a few providential friendships with other noir authors and their work, Manchette had formulated Ivory Pearl as the beginning novel in a new series that would constitute a new genre. Influenced greatly by work that dealt with international espionage and covert forces, the new series would be a blend of noir fiction, spy thriller, and political history, and would span the period just after World War II to present. Headline writes that his father envisioned a series that “presented a sardonic view of a world governed by multiple antagonistic covert forces,” where main characters would reappear in other novels in secondary roles. It seems that Ivy was not meant to remain the main character of the entire series, although I suspect she would have become popular enough that cult audiences would have demanded future installments featuring her. Headline writes that Manchette described the theme of the new series as: “How the hell did it all come to this?” which emphasizes the political aspects of his new work and his vision of people as “manipulated pawns” in the forces of history.
Manchette began writing Ivory Pearl in 1989, the same year he was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 1995, leaving us 150 finished pages, minus the notes on the novel’s intended conclusion. Although Manchette was not well enough to work on the book continually, his son notes that writing about Ivy became a “grand sally” that “often acted as a rampart against illness for my father during his hard final years.” Ivy’s predicaments are high-stakes, and I can see how her multi-country escapades and fierce personality could become a grand sally against her writer’s physical immobility. The writing has the kind of vivid didacticism that feels like escaping into a movie: we know what kind of photographic equipment Ivy has in her hands, what kind of silk Farakhan’s scarf is made of, the brand of their cigarettes and vodka, which jazz record is playing, the name of the artist whose work is hanging on the wall. In the same way that Headline claims Ivy inspired Manchette and was “worth fighting for” through his illness, I think that she is a strong enough character to charm readers even in her unfinished state. I can see Ivy living on in graphic novels and further stories told by other writers, much like Lisbeth Salander (who was a rampart against memory for her creator, Steig Larson) far outlived her trilogy.
Ryan K. Strader earned a B.A. in Russian Literature from George Mason University and an M.A.T. from Clayton State University. She is currently an instructional designer and researcher. Her most recent instructional design project is the development of a class in writing and qualitative research methods at Georgia State University, where she is also a doctoral student. Her most recent publication is an upcoming book chapter on populism in young adult novels. She lives and works in the Atlanta area.