In Jean-Claude Izzo’s “Mediterranean noir” mysteries, the city of Marseilles is explosive, breathtakingly beautiful, and deadly. Total Chaos introduces readers to Fabio Montale, a disenchanted cop who turns his back on a police force marred by corruption and racism and, in the name of friendship, takes the fight against the mafia into his own hands.
Ugo, Manu, and Fabio grew up together on the mean streets of Marseilles where friendship means everything. They promised to stay true to one another and swore that nothing would break their bond. But people and circumstances change.
Ugo and Manu have been drawn into the criminal underworld of Europe’s toughest and most violent city. When Manu is murdered and Ugo returns from abroad to avenge his friend’s death, only to be killed himself, it is left to the third in this trio, Det. Fabio Montale, to ensure justice is done. Despite warnings from both his colleagues in law enforcement and his acquaintances in the underworld, Montale cannot forget the promise he once made Manu and Ugo. He’s going to find their killer no matter the consequences.
“One of the masterpieces of modern noir.” —The Washington Post
“Like the best noir writers—and make no mistake, he is among the best—Izzo not only has a keen eye for detail . . . but also digs deep into what makes men weep.” —Time Out New York
“The holy grail of noir fiction . . . a fast paced and stylishly told modern tragedy.” —NB Magazine
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In which even to lose you have to know how to fight
I crouched by the body. Pierre Ugolini. Ugo. I'd only just arrived on the scene. Too late. My colleagues had been playing cowboys. Shoot to kill: that was their basic rule. They followed the General Custer principle that the only good Indian was a dead Indian. And in Marseilles, everyone — or almost everyone — was an Indian.
The Ugolini file had landed on the wrong desk. Captain Auch's desk. In a few years, his team had gained an evil reputation, but it had proved itself. People turned a blind eye to its occasional mistakes. Cracking down on organized crime was a priority in Marseilles. The second priority was maintaining order in the north of the city, where the suburbs were full of immigrants and the housing projects had become no-go areas. That was my job. But I wasn't allowed any mistakes.
Ugo was a childhood friend. Like Manu. He was a friend, even though he and I hadn't talked in twenty years. Ugo dying so soon after Manu cast a shadow over my past. It was something I'd tried to avoid. But I'd gone about it the wrong way.
When I found out that Auch had been given the job of investigating why Ugo was in Marseilles, I'd put one of my informers on the case. Frankie Malabe. I trusted him. If Ugo came to Marseilles, it was obvious he'd go to Lole's, in spite of all the time that had passed. And I'd been sure Ugo would come. Because of Manu, and because of Lole. Friendship has its rules, you can't avoid them. I'd been expecting Ugo for three months. Because I too thought that Manu's death couldn't be left open. There had to be an explanation. There had to be a culprit. Justice had to be done. I wanted to see Ugo, to talk about that. About justice. I was a cop and he was a criminal, but I wanted to stop him doing anything stupid. To protect him from Auch. But to find Ugo, I had to see Lole again, and since Manu's death, I'd lost track of her.
Frankie Malabe had been efficient. He'd hung out at the Vamping, spoken to Lole. But he hadn't passed his information on to me until a day after he'd offered it to Auch. Auch had the power, and he was tough. The informers were scared of him. And being the scumbags they were, they tended to look after their own interests. I should have known that.
My other mistake had been not going to see Lole myself the other evening. I can be a bit of a coward sometimes. I couldn't make up my mind to just show up at the Vamping after three months. Three months from the night following Manu's death. Maybe Lole wouldn't even have spoken to me. Or maybe, seeing me, she'd have gotten the message. And then Ugo would have gotten it, too.
Ugo. He stared up at me with his dead eyes, a smile on his lips. I closed his eyelids. The smile remained. It wouldn't go away now.
I stood up. There was a lot of bustle around me. Orlandi stepped forward to take photos. I looked down at Ugo's body. His hand was open. The Smith and Wesson lay on the step, like an extension of the hand. Orlandi snapped him. What had really happened? Was he getting ready to shoot? Had there been the usual warnings? I'd never know. Or maybe one day in hell, when I met Ugo again. Because the only witnesses would be those chosen by Auch. The people in the neighborhood would keep shtum. Their word wasn't worth anything. I turned away. Auch had just made his appearance. He walked up to me.
"I'm sorry, Fabio. About your friend."
"Go fuck yourself."
I went back up Rue des Cartiers. I passed Morvan, the team's crack shot. A face like Lee Marvin. A killer's face, not a cop's. I put all the hatred I had into the look I gave him. He didn't turn away. For him, I didn't exist. I was a nobody. Just a neighborhood cop.
At the top of the street, a group of Arab kids stood watching the scene.
"Get lost, boys."
They looked at each other, then at the oldest in the gang, then at the moped lying on the ground behind them. The moped abandoned by Ugo. When he was being chased, I'd been on the terrace of the Bar du Refuge, watching Lole's apartment building. I'd finally decided to make a move. Too much time had passed. The risks were getting greater every day. There was no one in the apartment. But I was ready to wait for Lole or Ugo for as long as it took. Ugo had passed just a few yards from me.
"What's your name?"
"Is that your moped?"
He didn't reply.
"Pick it up and get out of here. While they're still busy."
Nobody moved. Djamel was looking at me, puzzled.
"Clean it, and then hide it for a few days. Do you understand?"
I turned my back on them and walked toward my car. I didn't look back. I lit a cigarette, a Winston, then threw it away. It tasted disgusting. For a month, I'd been trying to change from Gauloises to Virginia cigarettes, to alleviate my cough. In the rear-view mirror, I made sure the moped and the kids were gone. I closed my eyes. I wanted to cry.
Back at the station house, I was told about Zucca. And the killer on the moped. Zucca hadn't been an underworld boss, but he had been a vital linchpin, with all the bosses dead or in prison or on the run. Zucca's death was good news for us, the cops. For Auch, anyhow. I immediately made the connection with Ugo. But I didn't tell anyone. What difference did it make? Manu was dead. Ugo was dead. And Zucca wasn't worth shedding any tears over.
The ferry for Ajaccio was leaving the harbor basin. The Monte d'Oro. The only advantage of my shabby office in the station house was that I had a window that looked out on the port of La Joliette. The ferries were almost the only activity left in the port. Ferries for Ajaccio, Bastia, Algiers. A few liners too, doing senior citizen cruises. But there was also still quite a bit of freight. Even now, Marseilles was the third largest port in Europe. Far ahead of its nearest rival, Genoa. The racks of bananas and pineapples from the Ivory Coast piled at the end of the Léon Gousset pier seemed to guarantee Marseilles' future. A last hope.
The harbor had attracted serious interest from property developers. Two hundred hectares to build on, a sizeable fortune. They could easily envisage transferring the port to Fos and building a new Marseilles by the sea. They already had the architects, and the plans were progressing well. But I couldn't imagine Marseilles without its harbor basins, or its old fashioned boathouses without boats. I liked boats. Real boats, big ones. I liked to watch them setting sail. I always felt a twinge of sorrow. The Ville de Naples was leaving port, all lit up. I was on the pier, in tears. On board, my cousin Sandra. With her parents and her brothers, they'd stopped off for two days in Marseilles, and now they were leaving again, for Buenos Aires. I was in love with Sandra. I was nine years old. I'd never seen her again. She'd never written me. Fortunately, she wasn't my only cousin.
The ferry had turned into the Grande Joliette basin. It glided behind the cathedral of La Major. The setting sun gave the gray, grime-incrusted stone a degree of warmth. At such times, La Major, with its Byzantine curves, looked almost beautiful. Afterwards, it reverted to being what it had always been: a pompous piece of Second Empire crap. I watched the ferry move slowly past the Sainte-Marie sea wall and head for the open sea. For tourists who'd spent a day, maybe a night, in transit in Marseilles, it was the start of the crossing. By tomorrow morning, they'd be on the Île de Beauté. They'd remember a few things about Marseilles. The Vieux Port. Notre Dame de la Garde, which dominates it. The Corniche, maybe. And the Pharo Palace, which they could see now to their left.
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.
The ferry was now just a dark patch in the setting sun. I was too much of a cop to take things at face value. There was a lot I couldn't figure out. Who'd put Ugo on to Zucca so quickly? Had Zucca really ordered the hit on Manu? Why? And why hadn't Auch collared Ugo last night? Or this morning? And where was Lole at the time?
Lole. Like Manu and Ugo, I hadn't noticed her growing up, becoming a woman. Then, like them, I'd fallen in love with her. But I had no claims on her. I wasn't from the Panier. I was born there, but when I was two years old, my parents moved to the Capelette, a wop neighborhood. The most you could hope for — and it was a lot — was to be good friends with Lole. Where I'd really been lucky was in being friends with Manu and Ugo.
At that time, I still had family in the neighborhood, on Rue des Cordelles. Three cousins: two boys and a girl. The girl's name was Angèle. Gélou, we called her. She was grown up. Almost seventeen. She often came to our house. She helped my mother, who was already bedridden most of the time. Afterwards, I had to walk her home. It wasn't really dangerous in those days, but Gélou didn't like to go home on her own. And I liked to walk with her. She was beautiful, and I felt proud when she gave me her arm. The problem started when we reached the Accoules. I didn't like to go into the neighborhood. It was dirty, and it stank. I felt ashamed. Most of all, I was scared stiff. Not when I was with her, but when I walked back alone. Gélou knew that, and it amused her. I didn't dare ask my brothers to walk back with me. I'd set off at a near run, eyes down. There were often boys my age at the corner of Rue du Panier and Rue des Muettes. I'd hear them laughing as I passed. Sometimes they whistled at me, as if I was a girl.
One evening, at the end of summer, Gélou and I were coming up Rue des Petits-Moulins. Arm in arm, like lovers. Her breast brushed the back of my hand. It drove me wild. I was happy. Then I saw them, the two of them. I'd already passed them several times. I guessed we were the same age. Fourteen. They were coming toward us, smiling maliciously. Gélou tightened her grip on my arm, and I felt the warmth of her breast on my hand.
They stepped aside as we passed. The taller one on Gélou's side, the shorter one on my side. He shoved me with his shoulder, and laughed uproariously. I let go of Gélou's arm.
He turned in surprise. I punched him in the stomach, and he bent double. Then I pulled him back up with a left full in the face. An uncle of mine had taught me a bit of boxing, but I was fighting for the first time. The boy was on the ground now, trying to get his breath back. The other one hadn't moved. Neither had Gélou. She was watching, scared, but delighted too, I think.
I walked up to him. "So, spic, had enough?" I said, threateningly.
"You shouldn't call him that," the other one said, behind me.
"What are you? A wop?"
"What's it to you?"
I felt the ground disappear beneath my feet. From where he lay, he'd tripped me up. I found myself on my back. He threw himself on me. I saw that his lip was cut, and he was bleeding. We rolled over. The smell of piss and shit filled my nostrils. I wanted to cry. I wanted to stop fighting and lay my head on Gélou's breasts. Then I felt myself being pulled violently to my feet and slapped on the head. A man was separating us, calling us punks, telling us we'd end up in the joint. I didn't see them again until September, when we found ourselves in the same school, on Rue des Remparts, doing vocational classes. Ugo came up to me and shook my hand, then Manu did the same. We talked about Gélou. They both thought she was the most beautiful girl in the neighborhood.
It was after midnight by the time I got back home. I lived outside Marseilles, at Les Goudes, the last little harbor town but one before the string of rocky inlets known as the calanques. You go along the Corniche, as far as the Roucas Blanc beach, then follow the coast. La Vieille Chappelle. La Pointe Rouge. La Campagne Pastrée. La Grotte-Roland. A whole bunch of neighborhoods that were still like villages. Then La Madrague de Montredon. That, seemingly, is where Marseilles stops. After that, there's a narrow, winding road, cut into the white rock, overlooking the sea. At the end of it, sheltered by arid hills, the harbor of Les Goudes. Less than a mile past there, the road stops. At Callelonge, Impasse des Muets. Beyond that, the calanques: Sormiou, Morgiou, Sugitton, En-Vau. Wonders, every one of them. You won't find anything like them anywhere else along the coast. The only way to reach them is on foot, or by boat, which is a good thing. Eventually, you come to the port of Cassis, and the tourists reappear.
Like almost all the houses here, my house is a one-storey cottage, built of bricks, wood and a few tiles. It's on the rocks, overlooking the sea. Two rooms. A small bedroom and a big dining room cum kitchen, simply furnished, with odds and ends. A branch of Emmaus. My boat was moored at the bottom of a flight of eight steps. A fisherman's boat, with a pointed stern, that I'd bought from my neighbor Honorine. I'd inherited the house from my parents. It was their only possession. And I was their only son.
The whole family used to come here on Saturdays. There'd be big plates of pasta in sauce, with headless larks and meatballs cooked in the same sauce. The smells of tomatoes, basil, thyme, and bay filled the rooms. Bottles of rosé wine did the rounds amid much laughter. The meals always finished with songs, songs by Marino Marini and Renato Carosone first, then Neapolitan songs. The last was always Santa Lucia, sung by my father.
Afterwards, the men would start playing belote. They'd play all night long, until one of them lost his temper and threw down the cards. "Put the leeches on him!" someone would cry. And the laughter would start all over again. There were mattresses on the floor. We shared the beds. We children all slept in the same bed, crosswise. I'd rest my head on Gélou's burgeoning breasts and fall asleep happy. Like a child, but with adult dreams.
My mother's death put an end to the parties. My father never again set foot in Les Goudes. Even thirty years ago, coming to Les Goudes was quite an expedition. You had to take the 19, at Place de la Prefecture, on the corner of Rue Armeny, and travel as far as La Madrague de Montredon. From there, you continued in an old bus whose driver had long since passed retirement age. Manu, Ugo and I started to go there when we were about sixteen. We never took girls there. It was just for us. Our hideout. We took all our treasures to the house. Books, record albums. We were inventing the world. A world in our own image, to match our own strengths. We'd spend whole days reading Ulysses' adventures to each other. Then, when night fell, sitting silent on the rocks, we'd dream of mermaids with beautiful hair singing 'among the black rocks all streaming with white foam.' And we cursed those who'd killed the mermaids.
Our taste for books came from Antonin, an old second-hand bookseller, an anarchist, whose shop was on Cours Julien. We'd cut classes to go see him. He'd tell us stories of adventurers and pirates. The Caribbean. The Red Sea. The South Seas Sometimes, he's stop, grab a book, and read us a passage. As if to prove that what he was telling us was true. Then he'd give it to us as a present. The first one was Conrad's Lord Jim.
That was where we also listened to Ray Charles for the first time. On Gélou's old Teppaz. It was a 45 of the Newport concert. What'd I Say and I Got a Woman. Fantastic. We played the record over and over again, at full volume, until Honorine finally cracked.
"My God, you're going to drive us crazy!" she cried from her terrace, her fists on her fat hips. She threatened to complain to my father. I knew perfectly well she hadn't seen him since my mother died, but she was so furious, we believed she was quite capable of doing it. That calmed us down. And anyhow, we liked Honorine. She always worried about us. She'd come over to see 'if we needed anything.'
"Do your parents know where you are?"
"Of course," I'd reply.
"And didn't they make you a picnic?"
"They're too poor."
We'd burst out laughing. She'd smile, shrug her shoulders, and leave. She understood us. She was like our mother, and we were the children she'd never had. Then she'd come back with a snack. Or fish soup, when we slept over on Saturday night. The fish was caught by her husband Toinou. Sometimes, he'd take us out in his boat. Each of us in turn. He was the one who gave me my taste for fishing. And now, I had his boat, the Trémolino, beneath my window.
We came regularly to Les Goudes until the army separated us. We were together at first, during training. At Toulon, then at Fréjus, in the Colonial Army, among corporals with scars and medals up to their ears. Survivors of Indochina and Algeria who were still spoiling for a fight. Manu had stayed in Fréjus, Ugo left for Nouméa, and I left for Djibouti. After that, we weren't the same anymore. We'd become men. Disillusioned and cynical. Slightly bitter too. We had nothing. We hadn't even learned a trade. No future. Nothing but life. But a life without a future is worse than no life at all.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Total Chaos"
Copyright © 1995 Éditions Gallimard.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“Like the best noir writers—and make no mistake, he is among the best — Izzo not only has a keen eye for detail . . . but also digs deep into what makes men weep.”—Time Out New York
"Rich, ambitious, and passionate." — Washington Post
"Izzo provides another guided tour of the underbelly of Marseilles (so extensive that it seems to swallow the whole city) that's bracing in its wit and velocity." — Kirkus (starred review)