Ivory Pearl by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Review published on June 11, 2018.

Ivory Pearl (La Princesse du Sang) is a rediscovered gem, nothing short of a masterpiece. Raiding the archives for lost treasure often uncovers dull material, but this novel is an exception, a first rate thriller by one of noir’s intellectual drivers. Ivory Pearl was to be the first in a new and ambitious series that explored the geo-political situation beginning in 1956. To be called ‘The People in a Bad Time’ cycle. Sadly, this was Manchette’s last novel before his untimely death. We will never see his vision fully realised. There is enough here, however, to see that he intended to link individual events and apparently internal state affairs to the wider seismic changes in the world. All delivered in the same tight framework as his previous work.

Manchette began translating American hard-boiled fiction in the early 1960s, influencing his own writing style. He was instrumental in creating the ‘neo-polar’ sub-genre of the roman policier; detective stories with a socio-political aspect. For the most part, his novels are brief, spare, taut affairs but they tackle big themes. Easily read in an afternoon but they will stay with you. It’s now a much copied style, literary crime fiction often has a socio-political context. It elevates them from the ordinary crime story, it is the essence of noir. Ivory Pearl came about because Manchette was concerned that the crime novel was becoming too conformist and stale. He wanted to come up with a story that combined noir elements with espionage but set in a political historical context. Looking at the world he asks: “How the hell did it all come to this?” Ivory Pearl sees Manchette make the connections between wars and gun traffickers, colonialism, state intelligence services and foreign policy. He has used the spy genre, probably influenced by le Carré and Ross Thomas. 1956 was a good year to begin.

Ivory Pearl opens with three sinister looking men and a drugged child arriving at a seaside villa. Two of the men, Balazs and Branko, take the child upstairs. The third, Maurer, senses something is wrong. Guido, a fourth, suddenly appears: “Change of plan”, he says, as he points a gun at Maurer. Before he can get a shot off, Maurer charges at him with a Penang, an Asian machete, he manages to sever Guido’s gun hand and then slashes at his jugular. He picks up the pistol in time to shoot a fifth man coming down the stairs. He check on his friends, both dead, but the girl, slumped against a wall, is wounded but alive. Maurer scoops her up and runs. Several years later he is cornered by three men outside a bar demanding to know where Alba Black is, she is the niece of the arms dealer, Aaron Black.

1st January, 1956, Mademoiselle Ivy lands at Dieppe airport, back from Algeria, she is driven to Samuel Farakhan’s estate. The two meet up once a year at this time and exchange gifts, it’s their ritual. Farakhan took Ivy, also known as Ivory Pearl, under his wing in Berlin at the end of the war. A waif from a French orphanage who always wanted to become a photographer. Ivy has photographed at the centre of every major war or revolution since: East Berlin the ’53 revolt, the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, Malaya, Indochine and Algeria. War holds no fear for Ivy, she grew up in war, lived under the Germans and followed the British army into Berlin, as a fifteen year old. She sells her work to Paris Match, Life and other photo-journals. On her way here Ivy looked something up for Farakhan. She tells him that Alba Black and a man escaped on the morning the two Hungarians and two Americans were killed in the seaside villa. Ivy also informs Farakhan that she wants to quit for a year, take nature photos and relax, take stock. So he suggests a stay in the Sierra Maestra mountains in Cuba.

“‘LaLa Isla del cien mil putas?’ she had replied. ‘You must be joking! I want to go somewhere inaccessible. I want peace.’”

Of course, Farakhan has a motive, at least that’s what you might think but it’s not quite that simple but he does lie to Ivy:

“’…. Does my trip bother you?’ ‘No’ Farakhan had answered. ‘You’re imagining things.’”

This is where things become complicated, as Ivy unwittingly steps into a deadly hunt, the world of gun running to Africa and the machinations of the intelligence services of France and the US. She witnesses the return of Castro, in a tale of blackmail, double-cross, and best laid plans….

Ivy is an innocent, a twist for Manchette, perfect to lead us into the heart of darkness. She is hungry for excitement, she wants to be the female Capa. Ivory Pearl is a formidable woman, determined, head strong and fiercely independent. Ironically as Ivy takes a year out she misses the Hungarian Uprising, Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, Nasser and the Suez Crisis – the novel doesn’t miss them. Thumb nail sketches some how create characters who have weight.

Bodies drop in the best noir traditions, not a word wasted, familiar sentence structures and plotting corral expansive themes. The cultural references, the music characters listen to, all set the scene beautifully.

The novel was never completed but the author’s planning notes round off the tale satisfactorily. Gary Indiana expresses why it doesn’t matter in a incisive essay at the end of the novel:

“The final chapters of Ivory Pearl exist only as notes left by the author, here edited by his son. Even in this incomplete state, however, the novel brilliantly manifests the simultaneities and expansive purview Manchette intended.”

With an introduction by his son, Doug Headline, and notes on the genesis of the novel too. I am sure you will read this and wonder what Manchette might have achieved in this series. This is an important novel from one of the French greats. This is an elegant, scholarly translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith. If it gives you a taste for Manchette his noir classics include The Prone Gunman, filmed as The Gunman (Sean Penn), Three to Kill and Fatale. Pared down prose, tightly plotted hard-boiled fiction.

Paul Burke 5/5

Ivory Pearl by Jean-Patrick Manchette
New York Review of Books 9781681372105 pbk May 2018

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