Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Jean-Claude Izzo is considered one of the leaders of modern French/Mediterranean noir. It’s about time this feature included one of his books, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Total Chaos, the first of his Marseilles trilogy.
Fabio Montale, Pierre ‘Ugo’ Ugolini, and their friend Manu grew up together on the streets of Marseilles (and not the nice ones, either). As young people, they got into more than their share of trouble, until a tragedy made Montale re-think his choices in life. The three friends swore to remain loyal to each other, but things change. They went their separate ways, and Montale first joined the military, and then became a local police officer in his old haunt.
Manu and Ugo, though, got involved in the criminal underworld. Ugo ended up going abroad, but Manu stayed in Marseilles. Now, Manu’s been murdered, and Ugo has returned to avenge his friend’s death. When he himself is murdered, Montale has a real sense of obligation to find out what happened. The three former friends had become estranged, but Montale still feels the bonds of loyalty, so he begins to investigate.
In the meantime, he also gets involved in another case. In his time as a ‘beat cop,’ Montale’s gotten to know the various people who live in the area. One of them is Mouloud Laarbi, who immigrated to France from Algeria. He and his children have been trying to make a life in Marseilles, and he sees real promise in his daughter, Leila, who’s at university. Now he’s worried because Leila hasn’t been in contact with him. At first, Montale thinks it might be because she’s failed exams and is ashamed, or it might be because she’s met someone. Still, he agrees to try to track her down.
As Montale follows leads in both of his investigations, he runs up against dangerous criminal gangs as well as corrupt members of his own police force. And there’s the looming threat of far-right extremists who might be involved. Montale has every reason to let both cases go and let the police chalk them up to ‘criminal violence in the streets.’ But he feels an obligation both to Laarbi and to the friendship he once had with Ugo and Manu, so he continues investigating. In the process, he has to make some difficult choices, but in the end, he gets to the truth.
This is a noir story, so finding out the truth doesn’t make things all right again. The story behind the murders is sad, and reflects the fact that in Montale’s world, life is cheap. For different reasons, life has beaten down several of the characters, and there’s not much hope that things will get better. For instance, Laarbi’s family came to France in search of a better life, with more opportunity. That’s not what they’ve found, though. Economic problems and bigotry have taken their tolls, and there’s little promise that that will change. The best you can do, reflects Montale, is to stay alive, especially if you don’t have money.
The story is also noir in that the proverbial deck is stacked. Corrupt people are in charge, both on the side of the police and on the side of the criminal underworld (and how much difference is there between them, really?). People who try to ‘play fair’ end up losing, especially if they’re ‘not really French,’ and one learns that very early in life.
It’s also worth noting that there’s violence in this novel, some of it brutal. And what makes the violence all the worse is that some of it is casual. Readers who prefer their crime fiction to be low on violence will notice this. The same thing might be said for the use of language. Both are consistent with the noir character of the story, but both are quite evident in it.
Moving through all of this is the character of Fabio Montale. Since he is an immigrant (he and his family came from Italy when he was very young), he sees life in Marseilles both as a lifelong resident (to him, it’s home) and as an ‘outsider.’ He tries to do the right thing, which was part of why he became a police officer in the first place. But he’s continually faced with the fact that the right thing isn’t always clear, and those who are supposed to uphold the law are often dishonest at best. As you can imagine, this leads to a lot of moral ambiguity. Montale’s fed up with being on the police force, but there’s no clear path to what he’d do instead. His personal life is, in other words, as chaotic in its way as the city he patrols.
And the city of Marseilles plays a major role in this novel. It’s clear that both Izzo and his creation love Marseilles even as they’re clear-eyed about its problems. There’s dirt, despair, bigotry, hopelessness, corruption and more. But it’s a vibrant, beautiful, and diverse city, with great music, great food, dancing, and an international perspective. There’s something hypnotic about the rhythms of Izzo’s Marseilles, and Montale feels it. As the novel goes on, readers get a real sense of life there.
As you’d expect in a noir story, the end isn’t exactly ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’ And yet, there is a thread of redemption, at least as far as Montale is concerned. I can’t say more without giving away spoilers, but there is a sense that at least for him, and for some of the other characters, life will go on. And there are some characters who show themselves to be friends. That, too, adds a bit of hope to the story.
The story isn’t told in a strictly linear, chronological way. As the plot unfolds, Montale’s history is told in flashbacks. Readers who prefer a single time sequence will notice this. Readers will also want to pay attention to those changes in time, as they aren’t set apart from the rest of the novel.
Total Chaos is a uniquely Marseilles sort of story. It features a ‘warts and all’ look down the city’s alleys and into its housing projects as well as its beautiful ports and good restaurants, and a look at the lives of some of the people who live there. It also features a detective who’s trying to do the best he can, for the best reasons he can think of, in what’s sometimes a very chaotic context. But what’s your view? Have you read Total Chaos? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 13 June/Tuesday, 14 June – The Body Snatcher – Patricia Melo
Monday, 20 June/Tuesday, 21 June – Bad Country – C.B. McKenzie
Monday, 27 June/Tuesday, 28 June – Dead Angler – Victoria Houston