Good food. Good drink. Poetry. Music. And Women, beautiful women.
Marseilles, vibrant seaport of sensual pleasure may be a French melting pot for those who come to seek better lives – Italians, Armenians, Neopolitans, Spainards, Vietnamese, West Indians, North Africans and Arabs, but it’s a crime-fillled simmering one, always on the verge of boiling over in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, a series that comprises Total Chaos, Chourmo and Solea. Izzo, who wrote the series between 1995 and his death in 2000 has been called the father of Mediterranean noir. The re-lease of his books this month is part the launch of Europa Noir.
In Total Chaos Fabio Montale is a cop whose childhood friends become part of the violent underworld in this city of exiles. Following a youthful crime spree, Fabio turned against violence, while one friend, Ugo, fled it – only to be dragged back, and the angriest of the three, Manu, stayed so enmeshed in it, he could not escape. They remained tied together by loyalty and because of Lole, the woman they all love – in turns.
After Manu is killed just as he and Lole plan to leave Marseilles for a better life, Ugo returns to avenge his death – and is killed in turn. That leaves Fabio who sends Lole away for her safety as he tries to find cause and identity of Manu’s killer.
While in the midst of unofficially pursuing the answers to that crime, Fabio gets a call from an acquaintance whose daughter has disappeared. Mouloud, an Arab who was lured to France in the 1970s with the promise a good job, a promise that faded when the factory closed has not heard from his daughter, Leila. His children are among anew wave of immigrants’ children, whose challenges mirror those Fabio and friends faced a generation before. Leila, the rare one in a million on the verge of escaping poverty and embracing her family’s dreams is completing her university exams at Aix en Provence. Driss, the angry one, redirects his aggression into boxing and working at a garage, and Kader works for an uncle at a grocery store in Paris.
Izzo’s descriptions of racism and subsequent crime unite characters and plot. For Izzo -- and Fabio, Arabs are just the latest in a line of those who were treated as less than French. Both Izzo and Fabio share a mixed backgrounds and knew discrimination as youths.
Izzo’s observations may give the reader some understanding of acts beyond understanding -- a sense of the difficulties that immigrants and their children face in another culture, difficulties that turn some angry young men into criminals and killers and their sisters into whores. Driss, a young Arab, who takes up boxing as an outlet for anger, mirrors in a small way the Chechen immigrant Tamerlan Tsarnaev, whose frustrated inner life can only be imagined.
In Total Chaos big dreams and boundless hope clash with the reality of economic recession, limited opportunity, violence and life in the housing projects. In the mix, already fragile families shatter. Danger lurks in the form of various transnational criminal organizations vying for power. One marvels that anyone makes it out in tact.
Marseilles is not the only stew in this trilogy; the books themselves read as mélanges of ingredients of the noir detective genre. At times the books seem less plotted than improvised; Izzo tries a little bit of this noir convention here, a pinch of detective trait there along with a lot of spice to see what develops. Elements of the detective genre are the ingredients he tosses in the pot. The most flavorful is his love and knowledge of place describing the neighborhoods, the streets, the people, the smells -- the ambience that makes Marseilles, Marseilles.
Add to that: like other fictional cops, Fabio loves food, listens to many kinds of music including jazz, blues and rap, cites poetry, and literature. As in other police procedurals Fabio has a partner, Perol, and a nemesis in the department, Auch. Fabio, like others, is a loner cop; he has been marginalized because he stood up against police brutality and racism. He has a journalist friend, Babette, and one detective he trusts, Loubet.
And like other crime solvers, Fabio loves but has trouble holding onto women. That’s only a small problem because they’re drawn like moths to Fabio’s flames. It’s difficult keeping track of them all: Muriel, Carmen, Clara, Zina, Rosa, Lole, Babette, Leila, Gelou. And they are all strikingly beautiful. Fabio, in turn, cannot commit to just one so his current solution is: a) to be mothered by the 70-year-old next-door neighbor Honorine, a woman who loves to cook, ‘’but she could only cook for a man” (and he’s that man) b) to make love with West Indian prostitute Mary Lou, another victim of lost dreams; c) to share information with the journalist Babette – one of the many women of his past. His connection to the victim Leila is also romantic; he passed on her invitation to take him home because he thought she was too young. Noble, yes, but regret takes the form of odd thinking after he views her raped, dead body: “I should have married her,” he thinks. This would be less bizarre if he didn’t also think it in the next book Chourmo, when another woman, Gelou, his cousin, is also a victim. What a solution! If he had just married these women, he could have prevented their plights. He seems to have a running joke with Babette, who becomes the focus of the third book, as well; he tells her he should have married her. And finally, he turns down Mary Lou as a consistent mate; he will not engage in the fantasy of cop marries hooker to save her from her life. Is Fabio some kind of bachelor tease?
He’s a fickle man who defines love as mostly just the swoony falling part: “I wanted to preserve the best part of those loves. The beauty of the first glance. The passion of the first night. The tenderness of the first awakening.”
While crime and racism are the roux that hold this stew together, sensual pleasures give Total Chaos its many flavors. (Consider the food alone: focaccia, cod tongues, cuttlefish pizza, stuffed peppers with creme fraiche). Yet, this reader wonders how a man can get any work done with so much to distract him. How can a reader follow the convoluted plot, distracted as I was by Fabio’s attractions? How can a writer stay on track?
Izzo doesn’t. He tries everything out and then systematically rids what will become the Marseilles trilogy of those ingredients that are of little use to him. Partner Perol wasn’t doing very much anyway, so why not toss him? Fabio doesn’t need to be a policeman – the job was just a minor plot part as he seems more involved in unofficial investigations than assigned ones. He could get as much access
as a former cop, which is what he will be by book’s end. Lole will also return to Fabio’s arms leading to this reader’s expectation that the two might spend some time together -- and we might get to know her a little better. But instead she’s really just another tied up loose end here. She’ll be conveniently away visiting her parents in Chourmo, an ingredient Izzo might – or might not -- use again as he improvises another flavorful simmering plot.