When Total Chaos originally came out in France in 1995, it offered a bleak view of class and race relations in the port city of Marseilles. Through the eyes of the book’s lead character, cop Fabio Montale, readers discovered housing projects poisoned by unemployment and racism. In a stroke of serendipitous timing, an English translation of the book is finally coming out in the U.S., shortly after projects very similar to the ones Jean-Claude Izzo described have been rocked by violence.
Montale is a loner with a taste for Thelonious Monk, Joseph Conrad and Lagavulin whiskey, but he’s also is a child of immigration who completely understands the thousands of daily social interactions that shape Marseilles. It’s against this backdrop that he sets out to solve puzzling deaths. But Total Chaos (the first in Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy
) is a lot more than an ethnological study of at-risk youth in a decaying city. Like the best noir writers—and make no mistake, he is among the best—Izzo not only has a keen eye for detail (the multiple references to local rap music, soccer and gastronomy are dead on) but also digs deep into what makes men weep.
Like everybody around him, Montale gets entangled in old friendships and new betrayals. The weight of these allegiances is particularly heavy in Marseilles, a city in which “you realize, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death.” Sure, Total Chaos has enough chases, guns and violence to satisfy modern-noir requirements, but its that sense of tragedy that imbues the book—and its protagonists—with a perversely elating grandeur.
By Elisabeth Vincentel