The shootings of two childhood friends and the murder of a mafia boss are the catalysts in this superb Marseilles-set policier, written in the 90s by Izzo, who died in 2000. It’s a classic police thriller set-up, with an intelligent, honourable, world-weary, out-of-place cop finding that his delinquent past comes back to haunt him as he attempts to cope with a corrupt justice system, racism, a mafia power struggle and his own emotional dysfunction.
In many ways, in the psychology and attitudes of its main protagonist, Fabio Montale, Total Chaos resembles the Cuban-set Mario Conte novels of Leonardo Padura, which were written about the same time. And it is also stamped with the same kind of Mediterranean cultural markers, particularly surrounding food and wine, as Andrea Camilleri’s slightly jokier Montalban stories.
But though the Conte and Montalban novels are entertaining and well written enough, Izzo mines far greater social and psychological depths and does so with the literary quality (superbly rendedered by the translator) of a superior novelist, not merely a thriller writer.
The atmosphere of 90s Marseilles is superbly rendered – that mixture of seediness, social deprivation and affluence on the border between southern, Mediterranean squalor and Northern, Gallic sophistication, with the choice between frontier lawlessness and violence and civilised, metropolitan behaviour as yet unmade. It is revealing, too, on the subject of racism and immigration, not only surrounding France’s abused Arab population but also migrants from other European countries, such as Italy, where the families of Montale and his two dead friends originated.
Like many contemporary thrillers, the actual plot of Total Chaos becomes, appropriately, somewhat chaotic, and one is left at the end with a slight feeling of being left out of the loop. But give the choice between plot and character, construction and atmosphere, I’ll take character and atmosphere any day.
Izzo was a master, and I’m looking forward to getting hold of the two other Montale books, Chourmo and Solea, asap.