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The Houston Chronicle: "Montale's search, first for the boy, then for the perpetrators of a string of related killings that explode around him ... forms the book's thin and densely snarled thread of a plot, with its prescient Islamic terrorist angle."

Date: Oct 17 2006

New in mysteries: Nostalgic narration dominates noir tale


The late Jean-Claude Izzo wrote a trilogy of books featuring the fatalistic Marseille policeman Fabio Montale that are now appearing 10 years later in English translation.

In Chourmo (Europa, 256 pp. $14.95), Montale is no longer with the police but has retreated to his house in Les Gourdes, a sun-baked harbor town half an hour from the teeming center of Marseille where he is seemingly content to fish and banter with the owner of the local bar.

Of course, he is soon drawn back into the French city's volatile immigrant mix of southern Italians, cautious Vietnamese and dark-skinned Arabs. A beautiful estranged cousin arrives, asking Montale to look for her missing teenage son, who she suspects has gone to Marseille to be with his Arab girlfriend.

Montale's search, first for the boy, then for the perpetrators of a string of related killings that explode around him like firecrackers, forms the book's thin and densely snarled thread of a plot, with its prescient Islamic terrorist angle.

Moving into mournful reflection

But what dominates is Montale's ruminative narration, moving constantly sideways into mournful reflections on both his regret-filled life and the social complexities (and corruption) of Marseille. The weight of memory on events produces a sort of frenzied stasis, personal stories winding through a thicket of named musicians, foods and, above all, of streets, doubtless resonant for those who recognize them but meaningless to others.

Flashes of noir moments (a cringe-worthy junkyard, a beautiful woman in a doorway, the necklace of city lights) periodically lift us out of Montale's roiling stream of thought, as do his stabs of anguished understanding.

But the Marseille we see is so mediated by Montale's nostalgic voice that it is hard to believe in its own gritty and pungent reality, or to fully share in the ex-policeman's grief.


By P.G. KOCH