SHOW NOTES for E32: Total Chaos by Jean-Clause Izzo (Pt. 1)

In this episode we introduce Total Chaos and Jean-Claude Izzo. We also discuss the broad topic of Mediterranean Noir. 

Justin’s Short Review of Total Chaos:

Jean Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, Book One of Izzo’s Marseille Trilogy, was originally published in French in 1995 by Editions Gallimard and first published in English in 2005 by Europa Editions.

Of Izzo’s work, Time Out New York wrote: “Like the best noir writers—and make no mistake, he is among the best — Izzo not only has a keen eye for detail . . . but also digs deep into what makes men weep.”

A review of his work in The Nation suggested that “The Marseilles trilogy may be the most lyrical hard-boiled writing yet.”  Now, this is saying something. There is a lot of lyrical hardboiled fiction out there. Does Izzo’s prose stand up there with the giants. I would argue yes, yes it does.

Okay. The novel. It tells the story of  Ugo, Manu, and Fabio, three friends who grew up together on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks in Marseilles — France’s southern port city.  The boys were close friends, more like brothers than anything, who fell into crime as a way to make a buck. Years later, everything is changed.

This trio of boys into young men reminds me of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, which has a similar triangle, including the fact that one of the young men ends up becoming a cop.

The backstory is dolloped gracefully throughout the novel, as the present story is told from the first person perspective of Fabio Montale.

As for the plot, this is a story of old loyalties and what to do with them once the blood is dry.

It starts with a prologue. A man returns to Marseille commits a murder, and gets gunned down by the cops. This man is Ugo, and Ugo has returned to avenge the death of Manu. He succeeds, but dies trying. Manu is dead. So is Ugo.

Only Fabio Montale remains. Now a beat cop in Marseille’s La Paternelle, an Arab ghetto in the heart of the city, it is up to Fabio to find out what happened to his old friends, and why.

There is a fourth party intricately tethered to the trio — Lole, a beautiful woman who was partner to Manu, and once Ugo’s lover.

And if the deaths aren’t enough, the disappearance of Fabio’s former lover interest, Leila, confirms his commit to cracking the case. Montale is the kind of cop I can get behind. He is disillusioned with law enforcement, has a fierce dislike of corruption and racism, and operates by his own code in the Paternalle.

Fabio Montale in search of justice. Despite warnings from fellow cops  and his contacts in the crime world, he cannot forgo the promise he once made to his friends.

Soon we learn that the deaths and disappearances are part of something big — a thing with deep and rotten roots that has grown into the upper echelons of governmental and also the Mafia.

Through Fabio, Izzo gloriously captures the sights, sounds and flavors of this Mediterranean port city. With him we meet the local denizens — immigrants, cops, criminals, exlovers. We dine in fine establishments and walk the sea-damp streets, we hear stories and drink wine and eat fresh caught seafood with women like Babette.

The language is lyrical and hardboiled, the action plentiful, and the moral compass fine-tuned. This is the kind of novel that immerses the reader in the world of its creator.

I really liked this book. Jean-Claude Izzo is a faithful and generous guide into the labyrinthine streetlife of Marseille.

This is a book that, like Chandler’s LA or Hammett’s San Francisco, is as much about the places as it is about the characters.

While the mafia / corrupt cop angle is a bit of a trope, this novel transcends the cliche because the writing is so good and the protagonist is so richly human.

This is a book with heart.

A terrific read in winter or summer, I developed a genuine interest in the rogue cop Fabio Montale and his struggle to reconcile his complicated past with the unfortunate present. He loves and hates with equal measure, and I love what he loves and I hate what he hates. He also appreciates the sensual — food, drink, aesthetics. He is a tough guy who doesn’t confuse toughness with pleasure-denying stoicism.

I give it 4.5 hits.


Notes on Mediterranean Noir

Per the Preface of Total Chaos:

“Another of Izzo’s intuitions was his having individuated the Mediterranean as the geographical centre of the universal criminal revolution. There is a rich fabric of alliances in this region between new illegal cultures emerging from the east and from Africa. These alliances are influenced by local realities which they in turn absorb into themselves. As a result, they possess the means to pursue direct negotiations with established power structures.

“This is what Mediterranean Noir means: to tell stories with a wide swath; to recount great transformations; to denounce but at the same time to promote the culture of solidarity as an alternative.”

I’m talking about a contemporary French author, son of an Italian immigrant, who wrote five novels before passing away in 2000 at the age of fifty-five, all of them taking place in his beloved home city of Marseille. The first three are referred to as the Marseilles trilogy, are considered mystery novels with moody noir settings rather than actual noirs. When the first volume, Total Chaos, came out in 1995, Izzo became immediately famous throughout Europe.


As Jean-Claude Izzo remarked, in the beginning there is the Bible: the first book born on the shores of the Mediterranean, the world’s first great anthology of violent crime stories. From the outset, from Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, this encyclopedic Book of books makes it clear that the history of this sea and the peoples who live on its shores is a history of violence, fratricide, bloodthirsty sackings, abuses of power, lootings and rape. Crime exists. The reasons for its existence are manifold. They reside deep within the soul of man. The Bible tells us that our story begins with a homicide, a homicide that is followed by others, and others still . . .

Like Cain’s heart, the history of the Mediterranean is black.


Notes on Izzo:

Quarterly Conversation article

Jean-Claude Izzo’s official site


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