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Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (Review)

Newspaper: Woodcock
Date: Jun 1 2016

The last five years have been littered with Nordic crime fiction. Nesbo. Mankell. Larsson. Lackberg. Hoeg. Often crime fiction from other countries get lost in the tsunami.

Earlier last week I turned my eyes towards the first book in Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseille Trilogy, Total Chaos. Well known in France, it hasn't had the same recognition in the UK, the translation coming ten years after original publication and even then perhaps only due to the success of Nordic crime fiction.

In Total Chaos it we follow detective Fabio Montale who investigates the circumstances surrounding the death of two of his childhood friends Ugo and Manu who both turned to a life of crime. It's a typical Noir set up. Montale lives alone next to an old widow who cooks for him, sleeps with a succession of women and has his demons. Typical Noir. But the story and to a certain extent, the characters are not the main attraction here. It's the city, Marseille.

When reading Total Chaos we get both sides of Marseille; the gritty underground of gangsters, pimps and drug dealers along with the easy going Mediterranean lifestyle. Montale owns a boat and goes fishing for his dinner and makes dishes that make the mouth water. This dual identity is set against a backdrop of racial tension that has always plagued Marseille, being the main port that opens France unto the Mediterranean. This is most prominent in Montale, Ugo and Manu, all immigrants, as well as many of the other characters who populate Izzo's Marseille. Izzo paints an unflinching look at what it's like to live in modern multicultural France. Some could argue that the focus on Marseille is too much. Izzo rattles off street names as much as Russian authors obscures them. You often wonder if he is indulging in travel writing instead of telling a story. As it raced to its conclusion, and it really is a race with only 250 pages I started to wonder whether without such an arresting setting would Total Chaos fare as well.

The answer is perhaps no. The story convolutes and moves at too snappy a pace not helped when characters are thrown into the mix and referred to differently or have similar sounding names. It is hard to tell in translated fiction who the fault lies with when originally written in a language not your own. The overbearing lure of Marseille is just enough to paper over its narrative shortcomings and leaves you wanting more. Unfortunately while Total Chaos is relatively easy to get ahold of, the other two books in the trilogy have appeared to gone out of print with prices upwards of £30. A trip back to Marseille we just have to wait.