Total Chaos is the holy grail of noir fiction, in the best traditions of the hard-boiled detective story. Backed into a corner, bound by childhood loyalties and a with a strong sense of what is right, Detective Fabio Montale fights corruption within the judicial system and the police force orchestrated by the mafia. Montale seeks to avenge the deaths of his friends Manu and Ugo. To claim some measure of natural justice from the total chaos of the city. Marseilles is a messy, beautiful cultural melting pot but also, sadly, a cesspool of gangland culture and mafia crime.
When Manu is murdered outside the Chez Félix Club by an unknown hand, Ugo returns to the city to take revenge. Even after twenty years his contacts can point him toward the man who paid for the hit (the hitman is long gone). Ugo hunts down Charles Zucca, but there are bigger players behind him. Ugo becomes a target in turn. It falls to Montale, disillusioned and disconnected, half citizen of the streets, half cop, to sort things out. He puts his life on the line for his old neighbourhood friends.
Total Chaos is a fast paced and stylishly told modern tragedy. The setting is vividly, lovingly realised; from the warm smell of the harbour breeze to the reek of fish guts of the nearby market. From the police headquarters to the run down estates, alive with every kind of people. Total Chaos is the first volume of a trilogy, the trilogy is much more than the sum of its parts. This is not just three novels linked by a character but a beautifully painted triptych. Ultimately this is Marseilles. Like Baltimore in The Wire, Marseilles is a character in this novel. As Barry Forshaw puts it in Euro Noir, “Marseilles, which is presented in the trilogy as a topographical, historical and mythological entity.”
I first read this novel in a different, slightly earlier translation, entitled One Hell of a Mess. It’s easy to see the connection between that and this revised title, Total Chaos; after all, this crime novel gets very messy. However, that phrase doesn’t convey the fact that Izzo isn’t saying something is wrong, he is saying everything is wrong, this is total chaos. The chaos caused by crime, in the local politics, and the economic and social deprivation of the city’s poor regions and streets. The new king of Mediterranean noir, Massimo Carlotto, discusses the concept of Total Chaos in his introduction to the novel. The role of the mafia, no respecters of national borders, as its instigators. Just consider: the need for laundering ever increasing amounts of money which exponentially increases corruption within the financial and political structures of the state and the economy. This is only one example of the importance of the newer translation, in general Howard Curtis is more sympathetic to the rhythms of the local dialogue and the clipped tempo of a thriller, phrases are pared down to great effect.
Total Chaos is Mediterranean noir, it’s not exclusively French. Although it’s origins are in the roman policier (the French detective/investigation novel, the term is often shortened to polar). Mediterranean noir developed from the French neo-polar movement, it has added a cross border cultural background to it (the neo-polar are noir novels with a socio-political aspect). It links the Italian Riviera to the Spanish Catalan region to the North African coast. It references the connected history and the inter-racial population (the cultural blending of Marseilles that is distinct from the French national character). Izzo’s background was mixed, not uncommon in the region, his father was an Italian who fled Mussolini and his mother was Spanish. They forged a life in the one of the most notorious districts of the city. That is reflected in Fabio Montale’s life in the novel, he has just such a background. People are not easily defined and real crime doesn’t respect borders, neither does Mediterranean noir. It identifies with culture and history. Izzo was unique and brilliantly inventive, involved in the development of both Mediterranean noir and the neo-polar movements of the roman policier. Tragically, just like one of his influences and co-conspirators in the neo-polar movement, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Izzo died young, only fifty-five years old. Total Chaos is a monument to his talent; it has influenced the crime fiction of Europe since it’s publication. Some crime stories are entertaining mysteries, others illustrate something about the wider society, but the Marseilles trilogy goes beyond that. Not just identifying the broken society but offering hope for the future in the people. Forshaw notes that Total Chaos, Mediterranean Noir, struck a chord within the communities of Marseilles, reviews featuring in youth music magazines, it has a cultural impact not unlike like rap – it reaches people. It has values and it believes in respect for people of all backgrounds.
The neo-polar/Mediterranean noir novel is more realistic, more gritty. Again Forshaw notes the “brutal intimacy of the life of his [Izzo’s] central protagonist and first-person narrator, his disaffected crime fighter Fabio Montale.” Izzo saw the origins of Mediterranean noir in The Outsider by Albert Camus, he absorbed the work Manuel Vasquez Montalban, but also African writers. In his collection of essays, Mint and Sweet Basil, Izzo states: “I arrived in Biskra [Algeria] one evening to find a light hot wind, the smell of dust and coffee, the light of a bark fire, the smell of stone, of mutton floating in the air. I made them mine. In this way we lay claim to landscapes.” Which I think explains how he felt about the Mediterranean, the osmotic process by which he felt at home anywhere in the region.
Total Chaos is a fantastically entertaining thriller. Alive with atmosphere, it’s a novel that understands people:
“The kids were at the end of their tether. Now that Toni’s body was there in front of them again, they were cracking. Karine was still crying. Now Jasmine started, followed by Driss. Kader seemed to have gone off the rails completely.”
The beauty of this novel is that it is part of a great trilogy. So, once you’ve finished this novel you can look forward to Chourmo and Solea.
Paul Burke 5/5
Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo
World Noir 9781609454401 pbk Jun 2018