After slogging through Roberto Bolano’s 2666 for nearly the entire month of December – a book I still cannot wrap my head around enough to write a full-length review of – I turned to Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy for some friendly, crime-noir, end of the year escape reading. The first book, Total Chaos, periodically called out to me as I passed it amongst the trade paperback mysteries in my store, yelling obscenities in French and spitting at my feet. On the basis of this, I recommended it to a friend/customer, who proceeded to tear through the whole trilogy faster than… a depressed French detective with a bottle of scotch. He fully convinced me of Monsieur Izzo’s brilliance when he said that the tension and horrible events in the third book, Solea, caused him to set it aside so he could catch his breath. This is coming from a guy who reads Ken Bruen as comedic escape. (Like I said, he’s a friend.) So I agreed to meet Fabio Montale, Izzo’s flawed Marseilles detective.
The trilogy is essentially a love letter to Izzo’s hometown of Marseilles, with all its faults and ugly blemishes. As a port, Marseilles is a melting pot for the Mediterranean – populated by French, Italian, Greek, Spanish, and African – and has all the resultant racism and deep seeded problems that such a place would produce. Fabio Montale is a product of that volitile soup. The child of Italian immigrants, he was raised in Marseilles and spends the first book in the trilogy, Total Chaos, as a detective working against the corrupt political system that surrounds him. When an old friend turns up dead – possibly at the hands of fellow law enforcement – Montale must decide who he can trust and who he can endanger by sharing his theories. You can see the shell around Montale begin to grow in this first book – or rather, further solidify from a lifetime of calcification. Although he is driven to solve the crime that ended his friend’s life, he is further driven away from the light, and retreats into himself, surrounding himself with just a handful of people that he cares about, while cutting everyone else off like cancerous growth. His home is his sanctuary – hot food and a bottle of scotch keep him safe – and this is where he heads when faced with a racist, corrupt police force he once felt a part of.
By Chourmo, the second part of the trilogy, Montale has left law enforcement and brought home the (supposed) love of his life, Lole – except that she has already tired of him and moved out by the time Chourmo begins. “Chourmo” refers to the solidarity of rowers in a galley ship, striving to one common end – escape.
“In Marseilles, you weren’t just from one neighborhood, one project. You were chourmo. In the same galley, rowing! Trying to get out.”
Living, for Montale, has become all about food, drink, and the sea. The sea is central to Montale’s psyche – his home is perched cliffside, with a series of steps to the water where he retreats to his small boat with a bottle whenever the need strikes him. While he is still reeling from Lole’s departure, his cousin – and first love – Gelou comes to him, desperate for help. Weak from his love for Gelou, Montale agrees and searches the streets of Marseilles for Gelou’s missing son, Guitou, while maintaining the “pervasive rot of cynicism” (as the New Yorker put it in 2006) that tells him that the boy is not alright. Local racial politics again come into play when Montale discovers that Guitou had been secretly dating a Muslim woman – a fact not lost on her violent, fundamentalist brothers. While undergoing his fruitless search, an old social worker friend of his is murdered right in front of Montale, threatening to upset the ship, sending Fabio sprawling across the port city in a vengeful quest for justice. Crime solving is a bit of a roller coaster ride in Izzo’s books.
And then there’s Solea. The tension in Solea is unlike any I can remember reading in another volume and I honestly could not predict the page-to-page fates of either Montale nor any of his friends and family. He jokes that food and scotch are all that matters, yet it is the patchwork family he has assembled that means more to him than he or Izzo can ever verbalize. In the opening pages, Montale finds “love” only to have it ripped from his hands almost instantly, leaving both fictional character and reader filled with a bitter pessimism concerning Montale’s happiness. While still trying to deal with that shock and grief, he is contacted by his old friend, Babette, an investigative journalist in hiding from the Mafia, of all people. These are not the Hollywood Mafia of New Jersey or The Godfather – these are the modern, organized, unpredictable Mafia of the late 20th-century. (Read Roberto Saviano’s stunning Gomorrah for more on the international web of the modern Camorra crime syndicate.) If you, like Babette, write something that paints their activities in an unfortunate light, it may be better to hide. Forever. Babette chooses to hide, but not before sending Montale a set of computer discs with all of her findings stored on them, thus putting Montale and everyone he cares about in grave danger. In an attempt to get Fabio to give back the discs, the Mafiosi begin targeting his friends, leaving both Montale and the reader hoping against hope that no more innocents get hurt before Babette returns to Marseilles. The tension is almost unbearable as Montale struggles to protect Honorine, his motherly, septuagenarian neighbor, from the evils that he has brought to her door. His true character begins to resurface in Solea – one of a man who will do anything in his power to protect those he loves.
The tense pacing of these novels, as a whole, is absolutely perfect. Montale’s general pessimism and detachment from the world at large grows with each turn of the page, yet his is not a depressing or negative existence. He has just resigned himself to accept his fate – we’re “chourmo”, all in this together, so we may as well make the best of every day we have. He is very much full of life, it’s just that that life consists of eating, playing cards, and drinking booze in his rowboat. It takes the love of others and Montale’s love for them in turn, to break him out of his shell in each book, just enough for him to help them out before retreating again. In the end, he realizes that there is no where else to retreat to – nor the need to keep retreating, for he has everything he’s ever truly wanted, right at home.
In addition to the Marseilles Trilogy, Izzo only wrote two other full-length novels – neither of them crime fiction – before he died at age fifty-five in 2000. (All five of his books are available through Penguin Putnam’s awesome Europa Editions imprint.) The Trilogy firmly belongs amongst the best crime noir I have read – on par with Chandler, Hammett, Bruen, & Kerr. They are gritty, violent, & shocking books at times, but the author’s undying love of the city of Marseilles shines through all the negativity and pessimism, leaving a love letter in the wake.