“Marseilles is paradise. They respect me here. I’m not a wog.” That’s the voice of an Algerian soldier fighting for France in Rachid Bouchareb’s 2006 World War II drama Indigènes (released here under the terrible title Days of Glory). Fifty years after VE Day, the opposite could be spoken by nearly any of the contemporary Arab and Algerian characters in the hard-boiled novels that form Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy. The Arab youths who endure suspicion and harassment from the cops and the prejudice of the native non-Arab French, who are the target of violence from the far-right National Front and the fool’s game of fundamentalist Islam: almost all of these kids feel like wogs.
And yet, as Izzo writes of his native city, Marseilles is a kind of paradise. The three books that make up his trilogy–Total Chaos, Chourmo and Solea–can be read as an extended love letter to the city. Izzo, son of an Italian father who had immigrated there, spent most of his life in the city. His output wasn’t vast. It included the trilogy, two novels–The Lost Sailors and The Sun of the Dying (the latter will be brought out later this year by Europa Editions)–and a book of short stories. He was one of those rare writers lucky enough to be popular with critics as well as the public, though nothing surpassed the popularity of the trilogy, which was written from 1995 to ’98. Izzo never got a chance to build on the acclaim and popularity of the books. In 2000 he died of cancer at the age of 55.
In the trilogy, Izzo describes the city as an ever-unfolding flower of sensual delight, a place where natural glory, the sun and the shimmering presence of the Mediterranean exist side by side with the man-made glories of a polyglot city. At times the progress of Izzo’s story might be nothing more than the movements of his hero, Fabio Montale, as he drifts from one of the city’s pleasures to the next. “There’s nothing more pleasant,” begins Chourmo, “when you have nothing to do, than to have a snack in the morning and sit looking at the sea.”
It’s a measure of how often paradise is delayed that Fabio almost always has something to do. The Marseilles Trilogy is Fabio’s story, and as with all disillusioned idealists, which is to say almost all classic heroes of detective fiction, it’s the story of a romantic. Fabio starts out as a cop in Total Chaos, the kind who tries to take on the role of good liberal social worker. By the end of the book, in which he investigates the murders of a boyhood friend and a young Algerian girl (whom Fabio has befriended and fallen in love with), this good cop, who has solved the case, is nonetheless so disgusted by the corruption of the force that he quits and restricts himself to his little seaside bungalow, content to fish and spend time with his elderly neighbor, Honorine:
And one day I woke up and realized I’d lost all my power. I’d been disowned by the anti-crime squad, the narcotics squad, the vice squad, the illegal immigration squad…. I’d become just a neighborhood cop who didn’t get any important cases…. I wasn’t the kind of cop who would shoot a punk in the back to save a colleague’s skin, and that meant I was dangerous.
But of course, Fabio keeps getting pulled back in, as much by his own nature as by the fact that, in each case, a woman he loves needs him. In Chourmo, it’s Fabio’s cousin Gélou, who comes to him when her son disappears. And in Solea, it’s Babette, a journalist and occasional lover who effects her own disappearance when a story she’s working on causes the Mafia to begin hunting her.