Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (tr. Howard Curtis)

First published in French in 1995, Total Chaos is the first book in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, a modern classic of Mediterranean Noir. It’s a crime novel with a socio-political edge, set in a city where violence, racism, social deprivation and corruption all come together to form the perfect storm, as reflected in the book’s title. 

The novel opens with a quest for revenge. Ugo has just returned to Marseilles, the city of his youth, to avenge the murder of his childhood friend, Manu – a hit that had been ordered by Zucca, a key player in the local underworld. Unfortunately for Ugo, the organised crime unit are on his tail; and when he makes a move on Zucca, a standoff with the cops swiftly follows.

Enter Fabio Montale, a neighbourhood cop who knew Ugo and Manu back in the days of their youth when all three were busting gas stations and drug stores for easy money. It was only when one of their holds-ups went horribly wrong that Fabio decided to get out, eschewing a life of crime for a spell in the army, and subsequently the police. Now Fabio finds himself standing over the body of Ugo, shot dead by Captain Auch’s unit in their crackdown on organised crime.

From this point onwards, the novel is narrated by Fabio, a wounded soul with a strong social conscience.

Ugo’s death was weighing on my mind. I felt suffocated. And alone. More alone than ever. Every year, I ostentatiously crossed out of my address book any friend who’d made a racist remark, neglected those whose only ambition was a new car and a Club Med vacation, and forgot all those who played the Lottery. I loved fishing and silence. Walking in the hills. Drinking cold Cassis, Lagavulin or Oban late into the night. I didn’t talk much. Had opinions about everything. Life and death. Good and evil. I was a film buff. Loved music. I’d stopped reading contemporary novels. More than anything, I loathed half-hearted, spineless people. (pp. 48–49)

Although Fabio isn’t officially on the case, he makes it his business to try to work out what happened to Manu, and ultimately to Ugo, the pull of their old childhood friendships proving hard to resist. There are many loose ends to be followed up, leads to be chased down. For instance, how did Ugo find out that Zucca had ordered the hit on Manu? Who told him? How did Auch’s team know that Ugo was back in Marseilles? When did they start tailing him? And did the police knowingly allow Ugo’s hit on Zucca to play out, thinking it would be to their advantage? These are just some of the key questions that remain to be answered.

As Fabio sets out on his mission, we follow his progress through the streets of Marseilles, complete with the sights, smells and tastes of this multicultural city. Racial tensions are rife, even amongst the different groups of immigrants. “Too many Arabs. That’s the problem,” reflects an Armenian shop owner following a run-in with some street kids.    

“Before, you bumped into an Arab on the street, he’d say sorry. Now he wants you to say sorry. They’re arrogant, that’s what they are! Shit, they think this is their home!”

I didn’t want to listen anymore, or even argue. It’s sickened me. I’d heard it all before. (p. 58)

The picture is further complicated when another individual goes missing. Leila, a languages student and close friend of Fabio’s, is found dead a few miles outside Aix-en-Provence, much to our protagonist’s distress. Like many others in the city, Leila was from a migrant family – an Arab whose father and younger brother now live in Marseilles. At first, the two sets of crimes appear to be quite separate from one another; but as Fabio digs deeper, the storylines begin to intertwine.

Two things in particular mark this novel out, elevating it to something over and above the norm. Firstly, there is Izzo’s portrayal of Marseilles, a visceral, earthy place – a cultural melting pot with a character all of its own. Honour plays a central role in the city, frequently proving itself to be a matter of life and death.

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. (p. 39)

The novel is infused with the pungent aromas of the city, particularly the local dishes and other regional specialities. There are frequent references to herbs and spices (mint, basil, thyme, cumin and coriander), seafood (bream, bass and cod cheeks) and local wines/spirits (rosé, pastis and cassis). 

Secondly, but no less importantly, there is the characterisation. In Fabio, Izzo has created a compelling individual, a fully fleshed-out character for the reader to invest in. Like Izzo himself, Fabio is the son of immigrant parents, a representative of the interethnic mix that characterises Marseilles.

With his strong principles and firm belief in social justice, Fabio is considered to be something of an anomaly within the Marseilles police – more akin to a youth counsellor or social worker than a hard-nosed cop. Much of his time is spent in the projects, operating within a society that is becoming increasingly intolerant. It is here that the youths of the neighbourhood hang out, typically sons of immigrants with little in the way of jobs, hopes or futures to look forward to. Instead, they ride the trains, listening to rap music, using the walls and windows of the carriages as tom-toms, beating in time with the pulsating rhythms.

The kids were a bit confused. I guessed they didn’t have a leader. They were just fooling around. Trying to annoy people, to provoke them. For the hell of it. But it might cost them their lives. A bullet could so easily go astray. I opened the paper again. The one with the ghetto blaster started up again. Another started knocking on the window, but not so loudly this time. Testing the water. The others were watching, winking, smiling knowingly, nudging each other with their elbows. Just kids. (pp. 73–75)

At heart, Fabio is something of a loner, a man who tends to retreat into his own territory – perhaps more comfortable with his own rules and codes than those of a shared partnership. Nevertheless, there are various significant women in Fabio’s life: from the sex-worker, Marie-Lou, to the freelance journalist, Babette, to an old flame, Lole, a woman whose relationship history also encompasses Manu and Ugo. Moreover, there is the sense of guilt Fabio feels over Leila, the Arab girl who clearly wanted to take things further when the pair were together a year or so earlier. Despite being attracted to Leila, Fabio was mindful of holding back, fearful of getting involved with someone so young and emotionally vulnerable. Now Fabio is left wondering what would have happened if their relationship had gone further at the time. Maybe Leila would still be alive with a promising life ahead of her? It’s impossible to tell…

In summary, then, Total Chaos is a terrific noir, a compelling opening to a trilogy with a visceral sense of place. Highly recommended to loves of crime fiction with a sociological edge.

Total Chaos is published by Europa Editions; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

17 thoughts on “Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (tr. Howard Curtis)

  1. 1streading

    Very much sold on this. One of the reasons I like reading crime fiction from other countries is for the sense of place. Have you ever read the Greek writer, Petros Markaris? I think you might like him too.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yep, this is right up your street. Even though I’ve never been to Marseilles, I can imagine what it must feel like, just from the experience of reading this book. Thanks for the tip about Markaris. Not a writer I’m familiar with, but given your recommendation I shall definitely take a look!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it seems to capture the tensions in the city very well. I can imagine it being ripe for a TV adaptation, maybe along the lines of Spiral/Engrenages on BBC Four.

  2. Annabel (AnnaBookBel)

    I’ve been meaning to read this trilogy for ages – I have the middle volume on my shelves – not sure whether I need to read the first first. I’ve only heard good things about these books, so glad you enjoyed the first one.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Just looking at the goodreads reviews of book two, it seems as though Marina Sofia started there before going on to read the others in the trilogy. So, you’ll probably be fine to dive straight in with Chourmo! I have every confidence that you will enjoy it, certainly if my experience of the first book is anything to go by.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds perfect for you Jacqui, with your love of noir – and perhaps an unusual setting too. The best noir writing can be really atmospheric, can’t it, and although I know little about Marseilles it sounds like this book really brings it alive. Nice that you have a trilogy too… ;D

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s very ‘me’, in terms of both style and setting. There are resonances too with the Marseilles of Anna Seghers’ Transit, that sense of murkiness and shadowy identities. I’m looking forward to seeing where Izzo goes with the rest of the trilogy.

  4. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  5. Radz Pandit

    I read the first two books in the trilogy some years ago and was very impressed. Compelling plots plus the potrayal of Marseilles was so vivid. I thought I would take a break before moving on to the last book Solea, but then completely forgot about it! I might just make it my next read.

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Funnily enough, I’m currently reading the second. Past events are references now and again (especially those concerning Manu and Ugo), but they don’t appear to be an integral part of Chourmo’s narrative – more a case of Fabio’s backstory, so to speak.

  6. buriedinprint

    I was just going to ask if you intended to read on in the series and I see, above, that you are already engaged in doing so! What a fine sign of a compelling story. I’m struck by the fact that the themes you’ve articulated in your introduction would also apply to the early Wallander mysteries, set in Sweden by Henning Mankell, also in the ’90s. Surprisingly (or, not) that about ten years ago, they might have seemed outdated in some ways, but now they feel oh-so relevant.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’re right about some of the similarities with the Wallander series, particularly in terms of the sociopolitical context. There’s a lot about attitudes to immigration/prejudices against immigrants here, which certainly resonates with some of Mankell’s themes from what I know of the Wallander TV series (to my shame, I’ve never read any of the books). And yes, these issues remain all too relevant today; perhaps more so with the lamentable rise of the far right in certain parts of Europe…

      1. buriedinprint

        We can’t read everything! Occasionally, with thrillers and mysteries, I opt to watch rather than read too (the Shetland series and the Irish one by John Banville/Benjamin Black some to mind).


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