You can make a case that the noir novel was invented by the American writers Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, although they didn't use that word to describe their work. Neither did the American filmmakers who in the late 1930s and early '40s began to make dark, violent, pessimistic movies that were far outside the Hollywood mainstream. It remained for French intellectuals, when those movies reached Paris after the war ended, to recognize a new and distinct sensibility and dub it film noir. Purists argue that true film noir existed only from 1941 ("The Maltese Falcon") to 1958 ("Touch of Evil"), but many of us think noir is alive and well, updated on the screen in films such as "Chinatown" and "Body Heat" and in innumerable hard-edged novels that set bruised idealists loose in a world of botched crimes, revenge and betrayal, dangerous women, corrupt police, cheap whiskey, rain-slick streets and all-pervasive nihilism. Today, noir is a universal language. “Total Chaos” is a novel by a talented French writer that draws from the deep, dark well of noir.
The Frenchman, Jean-Claude Izzo, was born in Marseilles in 1945 and died there in 2000. Ten years ago he made his name with this novel, "Total Chaos," the first installment in his Marseilles Trilogy
, which won critical praise and huge sales throughout Europe and is now being published in this country for the first time. "Total Chaos" (wonderful title) is above all about Marseilles. Its plot may vanish at times, but the reader is always immersed, all but claustrophobically, in the streets, smells, food, bars, racism, politics, gangsters and history of the city. Its hero, the honest and world-weary policeman Fabio Montale, eats cod tongues and cuttlefish pizza and downs endless pastis . He has learned that "dawn is merely an illusion that the world is beautiful." He recalls the days of his youth when "you got home, took a shower, had dinner, then went for a walk along the Canebire as far as the harbor." But the city went into decline: "The more unemployment there was, the more aware people became of the immigrants" -- Arabs, whom Fabio befriends even as other cops scorn and abuse them.
Fabio loves Leila, an Arab college girl, but he won't sleep with her because he knows she would only be hurt. They part, and he consoles himself with Marie-Lou, a West Indian streetwalker. The sex in the book, and the sexual ennui, are gloriously French, never more so than when he observes, "When they made love, her armpits smelled of basil." When Leila is murdered, Fabio sets out to find her killers, only to discover that "Leila's death was like a stone cast into water, sending ripples in all directions, and cops, gangsters and fascists were moving within those ripples." Izzo's plot is labyrinthine, but his novel is rich, ambitious and passionate, and his sad, loving portrait of his native city is amazing.
By Patrick Anderson