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Murder in the Afternoon: "Izzo also draws a picture of the xenophobic nationalism and racism taking over working-class votes in neighborhoods destroyed by a declining harbor industry and poverty-fueled organized crime."

Date: Jun 11 2015

On Tuesday, June 16th, at 2 PM on BookPeople’s third floor, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club discusses Jean-Claude Izzo’s first volume in his Marseilles Trilogy, consisting of Total Chaos, Chourmo, and Solea. The subgenre of Marseilles Noir reached its maturity in the mid 90s upon the publication of Izzo’s work. Izzo’s work also inspired the creation of the sub-genre of Mediterranean Noir, which can be defined as a more contemplative and sensual approach to traditional noir fiction. The genre incorporates hyperrealistic violence and a focus on social and political themes to create a mix of literary fiction and radical reportage.

There are many places in the world with fictional murders galore and nary an unnatural death in reality. Marseilles is not one of those places. Burdened with a history of gang warfare and systemic racism, Marseilles has for decades served as a symbol of the challenges of growing xenophobic nationalism in a post-colonial context as well as a cautionary tale of the high impact of organized crime in a disorganized society. It is the fascinating contrast between culture capitol and crime capitol that has allowed Marseilles to both inspire and celebrate Izzo’s socially critical prose.

In his trilogy, Izzo covers all bases. His first book alone contains corrupt cops, gangland warfare, hate crimes, and, as the title indicates, a world filled with “total chaos”. His work also includes contemplative meditations on life, love, fishing, the pursuit of the perfect pasta, and how to retain a deep and abiding admiration for a city that constantly cannot help but disappoint.

Jean-Claude Izzo, on the list of authors I not only love to read but also deeply admire, is at the top of the list. Izzo worked as a left-wing journalist for many years, and his politics, while not detracting from the intricacy of his plots, add politicized resonance to every act in his works. Izzo knew that the best way to love something is to understand its faults and love it anyway. Upon his death in 2000, bookstores filled their windows with displays of Izzo’s works as a sign of respect. Marseilles mourned the loss of a moral voice of a city.

Total Chaos follows a Neapolitan cop, Fabio Montale, raised in Marseilles as he struggles to solve the murders of several of those closest to him. Fabio, Ugo, and Manu, all childhood best friends raised on the hard streets of an impoverished immigrant suburb, each went their separate ways after a botched attempt at a hold-up. Twenty years later, Ugo arrives back in Marseilles, intent on exacting revenge for the murder of Manu.

Izzo presents Marseilles as a city governed by a code of vengeance—and Ugo, after achieving his, gets gunned down a little too conveniently for Montale’s taste. Montale’s investigation soon leads him into dangerous territory as he investigates mob power struggles, government corruption, and far right-wing politicians. When a North African family he befriended years before comes to Montale to report Leila, their daughter, missing, Montale also delves into the vicious intersection of organized crime and hate crime in his search.

Izzo dedicated his life to the city of Marseilles, and the city and its unique culture, or shall I say, mixture of cultures, are as much a character in his writing as his protagonist, Fabio Montale. Izzo paints the city of Marseilles as a city of successive waves of immigrants; from the Spanish, Gypsy, and Italian characters that represent the older generation in Total Chaos, to the North African, Vietnamese, and West African characters occupying the younger strata of Marseilles denizens, Izzo is careful to tie a sense of ownership over Marseilles to all of its inhabitants. Is also draws a picture of the xenophobic nationalism and racism taking over working-class votes in neighborhoods destroyed by a declining harbor industry and poverty-fueled organized crime.

Starting summer of 2013, Europa Editions, through their World Noir imprint, have issued new English language translations by translator Howard Curtis of many of Izzo’s works, and their message of tolerance, diversity, and subtlety ring even truer in the post-9/11 and post-Recession world than when they were first written.