Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo

total chaos

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo, translated by Howard Curtis
Originally published as Total Khéops, 1995
Europa Editions, May 2013 (Europa World Noir Series)
Book 1 in the Marseille Trilogy

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss.

The first book in the Marseille Trilogy, Total Chaos introduces police officer Fabio Montale, a second generation immigrant living in the port city of Marseille who works in the Neighborhood Surveillance Squad where he functions more as a social worker to the young criminals in the projects than as a police officer. Fabio himself had a wayward youth: he and his friends Ugo and Manu committed a number of crimes before Fabio left his friends to join the Foreign Legion and eventually became a police officer. The story begins with one of his old friends commiting murder, and Fabio ends up investigating what happened to his friend as more related murders occur.

Fabio is an outsider cop without much power, which works to his advantage during the investigation that quickly becomes bigger and bigger as the violence increases and as the organized crime squad led by his nemesis, Auch, appears. The plot ends up being pretty convoluted as the book unfolds, but the main gist is that Montale is working in a very dysfunctional, dangerous system and city.

The main plot takes a back seat to a description of Marseille: its neighborhoods, its immigrants, its political problems, its development and redevelopment. This book is very rooted in its place, and it doesn’t shy away from the societal problems that the formerly strong industrial port city is facing. I live in a land-locked state that is far from the Mediterranean port of Marseille, but I do live in the Rust Belt with lots of immigrants from around the world and around the country, and I live with the collapse of the industrial economy, so there are echoes here for me. Finally, this book makes me realize how little I know about the Algerian War.

A few warnings about the book: the violence in this book is quite brutal, the female characters are not very developed, and Izzo’s outlook is pretty damn bleak. Reading the book as a woman in 2013, I’m annoyed by Montale’s relationships with women, especially the hooker with the heart of gold. That being said, I was interested in the book and want to know what happens in the rest of the trilogy. And I wonder if the trilogy as a whole ends as bleakly as this first outing does.

Marina Sofia reviewed the entire Marseille Trilogy in Finding Time to Write.

10 thoughts on “Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo

  1. Rebecca – Thanks for an excellent review as ever. I really do like books that convey a strong sense of place like that. And I know that Izzo has a solid writing style. But I think I’m going to wait on this series until I’m ready to handle a bleak series with some ugly violence. Some of them are really good and I’m sure this one is one of them. But…I think I’ll wait a bit.

  2. Rebecca, I read this book a couple of years ago and had a very similar reaction. I thought it was good but such an unhappy picture of life. I wanted to know more but did not want to continue the books because of the bleakness. I wish I had been writing reviews then, because I don’t remember my reaction to the female characters.

    • I’d like to read the other two books, but I have to be in the right mood for them, I think, Tracy. I’m glad I’m writing reviews now too: I used to forget what I read pretty quickly.

  3. Rebecca, nice review and another timely reminder to shuffle my TBR and read this and the subsequent offerings, cheers.

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