Set in the cultural melting pot of Marseilles, these books take root in a seed-bed of bigotry, racial tension and fundamentalist rumblings. If that’s not the perfect setting for a crime novel, then I’m damned if I know what is.
In Total Chaos, the first book, we meet Inspector Fabio Montale, son of Italian immigrants and one-time street thug. Now, as a policeman, his thuggish skills are only put to use in the service of justice.
When the daughter of Algerian immigrants is found murdered, Montale must solve the case in a hurry before sectarian violence can erupt. He has a problem in that he can’t trust his colleagues. He can’t trust them because they’re a bunch of racists and, even though he’s a bit rough around the edges himself, Montale is essentially a knight of justice.
“So much violence. If God existed, I’d have strangled him on the spot. Without batting an eyelid. And with all the fury of the damned.”
He’s a good guy with a broken heart. The Marseille he used to know has become so engrained with problems that he barely recognises it. Gang wars, racism and drugs have turned his beloved hometown into an intimidating sprawl of high-rise apartments.
To escape the grim truth, Montale indulges in La Dolce Vita. He gorges on the finest food the Mediterranean has to offer, washing it down with generous quantities of wine (Incidentally, if you’re hungry, don’t read this book – it’s a kind of torture you’ve never suffered before, trust me). Fed and watered, Montale likes nothing better to sit and look at the sea.
But he’s a busy man and he can’t delude himself forever. Soon he must leave the table and face the reality he’s been trying so desperately to ignore.
A lot of crime fiction tends to politely skirt around social issues, resigning them to footnotes in a more exciting plot. Jean-Claude Izzo moulded his stories around these issues and instead of ignoring them, they become the obstacles that Montale must overcome.
“Marseilles isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared. It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.”
Aside from Montale, the main character in the trilogy is Marseilles itself. We can see a colourful and vibrant place, hear the noise and smell the food. It’s multitude of problems sits on one side of a scale but is counter-balanced by the sheer life bursting from its seams.
So give it a try, or you can pop along to Europa Editions’ website and browse through a whole catalogue of authors you’ve never heard of.
You’ll be glad you did!