In the novel Chourmo, the middle installment of author Jean-Claude Izzo’s Mediterranean noir series, The Marseilles Trilogy, Jean-Claude Izzo’s reluctant and often depressed protagonist, detective Fabio Montale, laments having missed a good meal before getting into the car chase he currently finds himself.
A nice plate of spaghetti matriciana wouldn’t have gone amiss. A little red wine with it. Maybe a red Tempier. From Bandol.
He thinks absently, as the plot of this wonderful novel ramps up, before it occurs to him:
What are you talking about, bozo? After death, there’s nothing.
That’s right, after death, there’s nothing anymore. Just darkness. And you don’t even know it’s dark. Because you’re dead.
Refining Izzo down to his most basic elements is actually quite easy, because ultimately, there’s little his works haven’t done to help push European and all crime fiction into newer and starkly bleaker territory. The dichotomy of sustenance and risk, of life and death, is not only present at all times in Izzo’s books, but like fine French cuisine, it simmers just below the surface too, a bitter smell that permeates even Fabio’s most triumphant moments. The same holds true for every one of Izzo’s forlorn heroes and villains.
The horror of the Charlie Hebdo attack highlights a problem that Izzo too grew up in the sixties as the immigrant son of France; Spanish, Italian, and Arab blood coursing through his veins. Lack of assimilation, despite the concerted efforts of some of the community and its organizations, has polarized the slums of Paris and Marseilles and Lyon and all the rest. While England stumbled through the nineties bearing the brunt of European flak for their aggressive anti-immigration policies, France endured damage on the other front, porously letting people in and then doing little to nothing to help them adopt the French culture and community.
It's at that moment of misfortune that we remember we're all exiles.
Socio-political commentary aside though, Izzo loved his homeland, passionately creating a Marseilles that, throughout his works, breathes and yells and eats and fishes and cries and loves and dies and above all lives, a city so alive in words that after completing any of his novels only one of two emotions can be felt, either an unyielding sense of wanderlust to step foot in this diverse multicultural town, or such satisfaction with his prose there’s no longer any desire to visit because no place on earth can be so interesting.
Marseilles isn't a city for tourists. There's nothing to see. Its beauty can't be photographed. It can only be shared. It's a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you're in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.
A worldly man, Izzo’s experiences pepper his works, but with such a heavy dab of cynicism, it becomes difficult to sort the fiction from the fact, and that’s exactly how he wanted it. Like his lead detective, Izzo volunteered to do his military service in Djibouti before going to live some time in Ethiopia.* A newspaperman and at times a communist, he did not publish his first novel until he turned 50 (Total Kheops, 1995) and passed away at 54. A travel and political writer mostly, he also published poetry but did not initially want to write novels. Luckily for the genre, in this short window he produced a wonderful trilogy and two other dark works.
I remember being asked why things always happen so fast. Love stories. We would like to have happen at another time, when we are in top form, when we feel ready for the other. Another. Another. I was told that basically in life you do not control anything.
The brevity of his writing is not for everyone. In fact, his harsh stoppages and jarring introspections can at times be antithetical to the idea of the modern and sleek crime novel. But Izzo is his most vibrant in these moments, and aside from the realities of city life he so delicately creates, his blunted sentences and sensibility are what stays with the reader for years after their initial ingestion. There’s a sadness there, a celebration, a love of experience and a rebuke of death, the tumultuousness of a life lived somewhere between depression and warm sunlight that all of Izzo’s works encapsulate.
Days are only beautiful early in the morning. I should have remembered that. Dawn is merely an illusion that the world is beautiful. When the world opens its eyes, reality reasserts itself, and you're back with the same old shit.
As a writer, and particularly as a writer within the same genre, Izzo’s bleakness is an aspiration, if that even makes sense. A dangerous peril facing all noir writers is weight. The weight of all of that killing and crime and sadness threatens to strangle their prose. It can be so heavy that it breaks the basic support structures of good storytelling: the characters, the plots, the action and the resolution. After all, how compelling can a story possibly be if the reader is constantly reminded we all die in the end anyway? Why, ultimately, then does it matter how we get out of the current danger if a bullet or an angry spouse or cancer winds up signing our name on the dotted line?
Izzo embraced the weight, letting it crush everything to dust and then he danced amid the rubble and everyone is still left trying to understand how he did it every time. Love was one way. Food was another. The basic particles that make up the atoms of a happy life. Izzo’s alchemy at combining and rearranging these to his specific purposes are many and wondrous.
Slowly Melina made him forget the fear and taught him love again. She was a strong woman, down- to-earth, realistic. Volitional. And she was also a wonderful lover. She loved him. You can love only once in life, she said, all the rest are anecdotes
Reviewing a particular book for some authors does nothing to illuminate the breadth of their accomplishments. This is one of those occasions where recommending a specific work would do little more than stunt the discovery of so much richness. It doesn’t matter where a reader starts, Izzo’s small catalog can and should be devoured in days, not months. The drudgery and the cruelty of his Marseilles demands no less. Don’t flinch at the killings, at beloved characters falling off the dark ends of the world. Try and stay above the waterline. Don’t drown in all that sorrow. There’s life on the shores of the Mediterranean too. Joyous life, and in Izzo’s short time, he led us through all of it.
So much violence. If God existed, I'd have strangled him on the spot. Without batting an eyelid. And with all the fury of the damned.
TDC Author Profiles,
Written by JJ Sinisi
P.S. All quotes within this article were pieced together from various Jean-Claude Izzo novels. The origin for each has been purposefully removed to encourage the reader to discover the sources on their own.
*Sourcing for some of this article was taken from The Guardian’s obituary for the author upon his death HERE
After contemplating shooting a target instead of investigating him, an elite four member NYPD Task Force quickly realizes they are better at murder than any of them could’ve thought.
“It’s not like your blind. You know you’ve taken this giant Godamned step, outside the law, outside everything. You start to see how you could lose touch with life, with regular life, the way regular people live it.”
What makes Garth Ennis’ latest criminal endeavor so enthralling isn’t the tired ground of good cops gone bad. It’s the subtly in this story, the way Eddie’s wife’s unkempt rose garden reflects his withering marriage, it’s an uncared for dog after its owner is blasted to pieces, it’s the remarks of an aging police chief who’s ready to retire but must step ever so delicately around corruption rumors; and throughout, it’s the perfectly layered sense of old Irish fortitude that still pervades the NYPD.
Red Team has something few comics in this genre do, an appeal to a wider audience. This book (7 issues in total) can and should be handed to a non-comic book fan who likes a good crime story, a good cop story, any fan of NCIS or its multitude of television clones. It’s a dialogue driven narrative that forces the reader to see not only the possible merit in killing criminals, but also how things can go exactly as planned and why sometimes, that’s the worst thing that could happen.
Led by Duke and George, two battle hardened warhorses, Red Team is one of many NYPD task forces, made up of elite detectives who inspect the worst of crimes. Clinton Days is a Teflon scumbag who, despite an intensive two year investigation, successfully manipulated the legal system to slip from the noose and stay free on NYC’s mean streets. Moved by frustration, by anger, by the imbalance the scales of justice place on the accuser, Red Team contemplates the unthinkable. They will murder Days. They will decide his sentence.
The striking thing about this book is how intricately the characters know their world, and how easily Ennis is able to convey that minutia with limited words and a flowing storyline. All four members are well aware of the power vacuum they will create on the streets if Days is gone. They are aware of how easily this all could slip from their control. They set up rules. No speeches. Only the worst. Nothing inside their current jurisdiction. They are conscious of not only doing what they perceive as the right thing, but also of how getting caught is as simple as the wrong word to the wrong punk.
What’s more, they discover early on, they are really good at this. The city has taught them well. They know the best way to commit murder, and once learnt, the only thing holding them back is the loose moral constraints they seem begrudgingly tethered to.
From the slow boil first issues, through the moral arguments of pedophile priests and accidental manslaughters of its middle acts, straight through to the fantastic and well earned climax, Red Team makes no excuses and does not lean on righteousness. What they are doing is wrong and they are willing to go straight to hell to get the job done.
This level of moral fortitude is exactly what is missing from other good crooked cop storylines. Vic Mackey’s enthralling run against the department in The Shield was thrilling for sure, but his cocksure attitude and conviction of his actions are nowhere to be found in the murky Hudson waters of Red Team. There’s no fooling this team about how deplorable their measures are. They just know they pulled the short straw to get it done.
Craig Cermak’s art though is really what makes this comic so exceptional. Script-notes are included in most of the issues, and it becomes hard to count the number of wordless panels Ennis assigned to his artist, with plain direction such as: [Trudy in the interrogation room again, rolling her eyes in derision. Not impressed] or [She leans her head on one hand, looking wearily at us]. Not only is Cermak successful in his adoption of Ennis’ vision, his set direction and character placement helps a heavy dialogue comic effortlessly flow.
Suggest this for a friend. Give it to your uncle who always loved those Pacino movies but has never picked up a comic. This is the kind of book that makes your job easy when someone insists comics can’t be engaging and gripping and disturbing and all the other adjectives this medium is sometimes excluded from because of Batman’s popularity. Red Team gets in the muck of cops and robbers. Don’t be afraid to stay with them until they try and get clean again.
Review by JJ Sinisi
Been reading up on some old school noir and came across a few interesting articles I thought were worth passing along.
The first takes a long and thoughtful look at what is possibly the first true noir novel and one that helped define the genre: The Maltese Falcon. The article correctly hits upon what sets Dashiell Hammett's work apart from so many others, the struggle of morality. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, while living in something of a more complicated world, is, most times, a much less complicated man. He is morally just, the knight fighting through the filth of LA crime. Sam Spade, Hammett's short lived protagonist, straddles a much hazier moral line. This following article does a good job picking around these scabs HERE.
The second, is a timely review of the new book: The World of Raymond Chandler, In His Own Words, by Barry Day. More than a biography, Day's book pieces together not only the influences and events of Chandler's life, but also takes the effort to reconstruct 1940's LA, and the people and events that helped form the basis of so many novels. Though I already know a good portion of the man's life, this book takes so much from his own words and correspondences I promptly ordered a copy after reading this review to find out more. The article on the New York Times Website is linked HERE.
Finally, heading back to The Guardian and Hammett, and I guess as a way of wrapping up the two men that have influenced pretty much anyone in this field or with even a passing interest in the genre, "The Dean of Hard-Boiled Fiction" goes knee deep into the author's history and, unlike the above glimpse into Chandler's life, we get some nice early comparisons to Hammett's contemporaries (Hemingway being one of them). The author also delves into the sad but fascinating tale of Hammett's writer's block and crippling alcoholism. How much of Sam Spade was actually pulled from Hammett's real life will never be known completely, but his inability to produce more work beyond his five stellar years from 1929 - 1934 is rooted in his life previous to his writing (a Pinkerton and lawman) and ultimately informs his typewriter's paralysis. A lasting quote from Hammett is one all writers fear but most never heed:
“I stopped writing because I found I was repeating myself. It is the beginning of the end when you discover you have style.” You can find this article HERE.
A special shoutout to Ed Lynsky for the Times article, I popped by his Google+ page as I often do (and you should too) and found it through there.
One other quick note, I lifted the above picture from another great article published nearly a year ago which recounts the one and only time these two men met, and I think this picture is the only one ever with the two of them. The LA Times write up is a great quick read HERE.
Somewhere a year or more ago I wrote a blog about my top Chandler novels. I may dig that out and re-publish it here. In the meantime, visit some of the above links and learn up on these interesting dudes.
J. J. Sinisi is a professional out of New York but spends what little free time he has strolling dark alleyways creating crime fiction. His work has appeared at Spelk Fiction, Yellow Mama, Spinetingler Magazine, Near to the Knuckle, Dead Guns Press, All Due Respect, Thuglit, Dark Corners, Shotgun Honey, The Flash Fiction Offensive, Heater, and he received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Short Story contest.