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
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.