Total Chaos (Marseilles Trilogy #1) by Jean-Claude Izzo tr. Howard Curtis

I’ve been looking forward to picking this novel up, because it’s set in and around the streets and coastal inlets of Marseilles (our local city) and even ventures into Aix-en-Provence and Vauvenargues (the scene of a murder in the novel – though known locally because Picasso lived in the château there). It was originally published in French in 1995, when Izzo was 50 years old, a mere five years before his premature passing.

Fabio Montale used to hang out with his friends Manu and Ugo, when they were growing up in the same neighbourbood of Marseilles. They were eyeing up his cousin Angèle as he escorted her home after a family visit. That first time he encountered them, they insulted him, he lashed out and got into a scuffle. He didn’t see them again until September, when they found themselves in the same class. They became firm friends.

Fast forward, they’re separated during compulsory military training, on their return they’ve become men.

Disillusioned and cynical. Slightly bitter too. We had nothing. We hadn’t even learned a trade. No future. Nothing but life. But a life without a future is better than no life at all.

Discovering that even hard work doesn’t promise fast, easy money they think about opening a bookstore, but need funding, it’s the beginning of the slippery slope into a criminal life. They soon forget about the shop, having too much fun chasing danger and celebrating its rewards. Until it gets serious and someone gets hurt.

Looking at the city from my balcony. I could hear my father snoring. He’d worked hard all his life, and suffered a lot, but I didn’t think I’d ever be as happy as he was. Lying on the bed, completely drunk, I swore on my mother, whose picture I had in front of me, that if the guy pulled through I’d become a priest, and if he didn’t pull through I’d become a cop.

They haven’t seen each other for years and now Manu has been killed. Fabio has become a cop but hasn’t been put on this case, regardless, he makes it his personal responsibility to find out what happened.

They promised to stay true to one another and swore that nothing would break their bond. But people and circumstances change. Ugo and Manu have been drawn into the criminal underworld of Europe’s toughest, most violent and vibrant city. When Manu is murdered and Ugo returns from abroad to avenge his friend’s death, only to be killed himself, it is left to the third in this trio, Detective Fabio Montale, to ensure justice is done.

Vauvenargues, scene of a murder

As the story unfolds, he identifies who is involved in local criminal factions, the mafia, and attempts to unravel how his friend had come between them.

We meet an immigrant family, a father and his three children, whose mother died giving birth to the youngest. Having encountered them over a skirmish in a shop in one of the projects, Fabio befriends them. When a member of the family disappears, the two stories begin to overlap and Fabio has another more immediate crime to solve.

Each chapter takes us to another corner of Marseilles, each car ride and return home to the fishing village of Les Goudes (my pictures below) introduces us to a segment of music and the women in his life; while there may not be a peaceful solution to the pervasive bitterness and revenge laced throughout Izzo’s fragmented world, one thing offers him temporary respite and hope is music. It represents the cultural richness and diversity of this city, populated by a mix of African, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern immigrants.

(If you’re interested in what those musical instruments are doing in Les Goudes, read my post here – Champ Harmonique MP2013)

All this creates not just the plot of a crime story, but a picture of a man immersed and entangled in his complex city, attached to his familial village, his boat, the sea his refuge and his reliable motherly neighbour Honorine, who makes up for some of the lack in his life.

Although I was a good listener, I was never any good at confiding in anyone. At the last moment, I always clammed up. I was always ready to lie, rather than talk about what was wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the courage. I just didn’t trust anyone. Not enough, anyhow, to put my life and my feelings in another’s hands. And I knocked myself out trying to solve everything on my own. The vanity of a loser. I had to face it, I’d lost everything in my life.

It’s a journey through the senses, that penetrates the heart and soul of an unforgiving city whose inhabitants love it fiercely, in the pursuit of keeping a promise made in youth.

In a moving eulogy transcribed in the front of the book, Massimo Carlotto pays tribute to Izzo over his adept mastery of  Mediterranean noir, different to French noir:

His use of the noir genre is not limited simply to description but penetrates deep into the heart of the incongruities, leaving room for sociological reflection and for a return to his generation’s collective memory, and above all, gives sense to the present day.

Jean-Claude Izzo when asked about the phenomenal success of his trilogy, characteristically chose to shine the light on the city he loved:

“Essentially, I think I have been rewarded for having depicted the real beauty of Marseilles, its gusto, its passion for life, and the ability of its inhabitants to drink life down to the last drop.”

N.B. Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions for providing a review copy.

Buy a Copy of Total Chaos via Book Depository

The Bastards of Pizzofalcone by Maurizio De Giovanni tr. Andrew Shegaar #WorldNoir

Crime fiction isn’t my usual choice, but I’ve been reading Italian literature in the past week, and since this is also set in Naples and came from Europa Editions, I decided to take a break from the more literary style and read this novel classified as ‘world noir‘ (a tribute and new imprint dedicated to the best in international crime fiction).

A quick look up tells me that noir fiction has its roots in hard-boiled fiction ( a tough, unsentimental style American of crime writing) where the protagonist is often an outcast, alienated. However, Kim Fay from LA Review of Books, when reading noir, used to preparing herself for ‘bleak cynicism and uncomfortable moral ambiguity’ is pleasantly surprised, referring to De Giovanni’s Pizzofalcone precinct series and empathetic characters as ‘tender noir’:

“Reading the Pizzofalcone Precinct series, by Maurizio de Giovanni, I quickly discovered that I can still be surprised. These books didn’t get to me with an extra dose of soul-sucking fatalism or some harrowing new breed of self-destructive protagonist. Instead, their emotional “gotcha!” came in the unexpected form of tenderness.

Tender noir? Is such a thing possible? Yes — and it adds a richness that many noir novels lack.” Kim Fay, LARB

As for alienated, the entire team at the Pizzofalcone precinct in Naples fit that mould, the place was about to be closed down, due to the previous investigative branch have been suspended for being implicated in a crime, the precinct may still be shut down, depending on how this new team of misfits work together and whether they succeed.
The Pizzofalcone precinct covers four distinct neighbourhoods: upmarket, poor, business and historic, it is like a microcosm of the city of Naples, an area where each of it many elements are likely to sidle up against one another.

“The precinct isn’t big, but its crowded; it encompasses a part of the Spanish Quarter and stretches on down to the waterfront. Four different worlds, in other words: the lumpenproletariat, as we used to say in the old days; the white-collar middle class; the businessmen of the upper middle-class; and the aristocracy. Everything except manufacturing, in an area barely three kilometres on a side. One of the oldest police districts in the city, small but strategic.”

All of them have been transferred from their previous workplaces, renegades who are unwelcome where they currently are, involved in some kind of misdemeanour – although in the case of the Sicilican Inspector Lojacono, who becomes the lead investigator of the new murder case, he was both specially requested due to his reputation and passed on without regret, due to allegations of corruption that have tainted and alienated him, since he showed everyone up in his last case by solving it while everyone else was looking in a different direction.

He is new to Naples, he has a teenage daughter he is worried about, a pizza waitress who is eyeing him up and a high-ranking magistrate whom he daydreams inappropriately of.

The wife of a notary is found dead in their apartment with no forced entry and so they set to and investigate, introducing us to various elements of working and non-working Neapolitan life, including an elderly woman who sits at her window all day, every day and is suspicious about the new occupant of an apartment opposite her, a beautiful young woman also never leaves her apartment.

We are also introduced to the obsession of the policemen Giorgio Pisanelli, who collects information about all the recent suicides in the precinct, convinced there is a connection between them and that they are not suicides.

It’s a well-paced, intriguing read, a few short chapters in italics, portraying characters who may be suspects, characters who are trying to hide something, this narrative adding to the mystery and has the reader trying to guess who it might be.  I really enjoyed it and even though I didn’t guess the revelation at the end, I appreciated that it wasn’t overly full of twists, neither was it completely obvious.

The author succeeds in portraying Naples both through the eyes of the newcomer and with the familiarity of a local, adding a compelling element of discovery and opening the way for future instalments. The team was well portrayed, interesting but quirky characters, that clearly will continue, since the resolution of this crime should serve to keep the precinct open, these renegades forming into a solid team while navigating the fine edge between the ongoing surety of their positions and a volatile potential to destroy it with one reckless mistake.

Maurizio de Giovanni was born in Naples in 1958 and for many years worked in a bank, though not a natural vocation, his colleagues attest he always had his nose in a book and it was in fact they who entered him in a short story competition in 2005 for ‘giallo novelists’ (a 20th-century Italian mystery, thriller or horror genre of literature and film) that was the catalyst to his becoming a successful crime writer.

That story introduced detective Commissario Ricciardi and spawned a series of books set in 1930 Naples, fascist Italy. His parents were born in 1930’s Naples, their lives and experiences clearly an influence contributing to his passionate for pre-war Naples of the 1930’s and the city today.

The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, originally published in 2013, marked his transition from the noir genre to the police procedural and a move from the 1930’s to contemporary life in Naples. The series featuring Inspector Lojacono continues (there are six books in Italian) and is being made into a television series in 2017.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Edition, for providing a copy of this book.