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Learn about the city that provided the setting for some of France's best crime-fiction, including Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy

From The Guardian:

Earlier this year, the advertising branch of SNCF (French Rail) refused to run a billboard campaign for a book. Rose Sang, set in Marseille, is the tale of a journalist trying to find out why a fellow photographer decided to take his own life. As one character, a police inspector, tells the heroine: "Corruption has taken over half the city, at every level." Rose Sang spares no one: not the police, nor the reporters frantically competing for a scoop, nor the municipal workers of Marseille, European Capital of Culture 2013, whom author Annabelle Desmais portrays as guilty of bribery and peddling influence. So SNCF claimed that the slogan for the book, "Marseille, son MuCEM, ses meurtres" (Marseille, its Museum of Mediterranean and European Civilisation, and its murders), might be taken for a political message in the runup to local elections.

However, Marseille-bashing – the city is a byword for economic stagnation, political patronage, drug trafficking in the northern suburbs, organised crime (actually in decline since the demise of the French Connection smuggling chain), recurrent drive-by killings and, of course, police corruption – is grist to the mill of crime fiction. What could be more romantic than this multiracial city, between the Mediterranean and a ring of hills, with its tower blocks and ancient citadels, its unique mixture of Provence and Maghreb? It would be hard to find a better source of inspiration for noir novelists than this city in the sun. Which no doubt explains the success of the local genre, which has no equivalent elsewhere in France. No one has heard of any hard-boiled heroes from Lyon or Lille. Intriguing as they may be, they simply do not exert the same fascination as Marseille.

Perhaps that's because Marseille best embodies France's low-life fantasies, as Cédric Fabre states in his preface to Marseille Noir, a collection of short stories featuring leading proponents of the genre. Marseille noir was born in 1994 with Trois Jours d'Engatse by Philippe Carrese and Les Chapacans by Michèle Courbou. The following year it gained a much larger audience with the phenomenal success of Total Khéops (Total Chaos), by Jean-Claude Izzo, the first in a series of three devoted to suburban cop Fabio Montale. But there is no sense of a literary school, less still a particular aesthetic, simply a creative outburst after decades of slumber and a common interest in the social and urban fabric. It is as if each of the novelists is trying to fathom the mystery of this global city – in all its diversity, tragic urgency and beauty – to forge some unity and invent a collective destiny. As if they all had taken on a mission to condemn, with light brushstrokes, the desperation induced by pockets of high unemployment.

An armed French policeman on duty in Marseille. An armed French policeman on duty in Marseille. Photograph: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty

"Politicians have confiscated and sabotaged the city's future. The only time Marseille stops being a disaster zone and the capital of delinquency, it's thanks to Olympique de Marseille [the local football team], even if it only lasts as long as a match. It's not just an outlet, it's the place's collective unconscious, its moment of glory," a video producer explains in Joliette Sound System, a short story by Fabre. He imagines a revolt, triggered by a video in which Zinedine Zidane and Eric Cantona call on football fans to take to the streets and take over council buildings. In contrast, Extreme Onction, by François Thomazeau, backtracks over the history of the city, profiling the public figures who have lent their names to parts of the football stadium.

Crime fiction is an urban genre that, much as the westerns it has largely replaced, is rooted in time and place. "What better way than fiction to describe this city, allowing the reader to see and feel it," Fabre says. "The truth seems so incredible. In many cases crime fiction lays claim to a form of social realism, following on from Zola or Vallès, but here in Marseille it soon has more to do with social surrealism."

There is certainly no shortage of absurdity in the city. A recent court ruling ended the custom among refuse collectors, known as fini-parti (mop 'n' go), which meant they could clock off as soon as they finished their round. In her story, Sous Peine de Poursuites (Subject to Prosecution), Pia Petersen makes passing reference to this practice. "He asked them why they watered the tarmac, why they didn't close manholes, pick up rubbish or clean the street. They just laughed at him and turned their backs."

Visitors are often puzzled by the anarchy of Marseille, by all the contradictory behaviour. But then locals, such as Philippe Carresse, are bemused too. "The sun seems to dull people's minds, but the nearby sea refreshes them. The world's most beautiful creeks are just round the corner, and the dealers only two stops away from the local secondary school," he writes in Le Problème du Rond-Point. "That's Marseille, with its ongoing chaos and overall inconsequence. But does it really matter?"

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