jean claude izzoJean-Claude Izzo is internationally acclaimed as one of the most brilliant modern authors of noir thrillers and his poetic novels set in Marseille are regarded as classics of the genre.

booking.com logoClick here to book a hotel in Provence

Izzo, pictured top, had a meteoric but tragically short writing career. He was born in Marseille in 1945 into a family of Spanish-Italian descent, did his military service in Toulon and Djibouti, then, in the mid 1960s, worked as a journalist for the left-wing newspaper La Marseillaise. And he started writing.

At that time the French literary scene was dominated by the highbrow, experimental and intellectual Nouveau Roman (New Novel). Izzo had no interest in it.

Instead he went his own way, writing film and television scripts, publishing poetry and organising book festivals and events. He was 50 before he completed his first novel, in 1995.

It was called Total Khéops (the title comes from a song by the leading Marseille hip-hop band IAM), won a major prize for the best French language novel of the year and was an instant best-seller.

It's translated into English under the title Total Chaos. A second novel/ sequel, Chourmo, appeared the following year and a third, Soléa, completed what became known as Izzo's Marseille trilogy.

alain delon fabio montaleThe hero is a disillusioned cop named Fabio Montale, from an Italian family like Izzo himself. A child of the working-class suburbs in the north of Marseille, Montale sets out in Total Chaos to investigate and avenge the murders of his two closest boyhood friends.

He's a detective in the classic hard-boiled tradition of Chandler and James M Cain while totally a man of Marseille. Montale collects American and British jazz and blues records, but also listens to local rappers like IAM and Massilia Sound System. He's a connoisseur of single malt whisky but equally enjoys chilled wine from nearby Cassis.

Alain Delon, pictured, played Montale in a 2001 television adaptation of the trilogy, and Richard Bohringer took the role in a cinema version of Total Chaos the following year.

Izzo's trilogy presents a much darker vision than the earlier one by Marcel Pagnol (Marius, Fanny, César), also set in Marseille. It belongs to a long tradition known as Marseille noir: books whose vision of the city is defined by its paradoxes.

On one side, sun, sea, sex, fine food and wine, a vibrant, cosmopolitan city and the exuberant pleasures of the Mediterranean lifestyle. On the other, drugs, poverty, violence, racial tensions and political corruption.

total chaos Izzo's novels are both deeply critical of Marseille and steeped in love for it. Asked about their success, the writer said, "Essentially, I think I have been rewarded for having depicted the real beauty of Marseille, its gusto, its passion for life, and the ability of its inhabitants to drink life down to the last drop." Find Total Chaos on Amazon.

insider tip about Jean-Claude IzzoYou can take a guided walk in Izzo's footsteps through Marseille's Panier (Old Town), where the opening of Total Chaos is set. It's accompanied by a saxophone jazz musician and readings from his novels (in French). Contact the Marseille Tourist Office for details.

As well as the trilogy, Izzo published a handful more books: two other novels, Les Marins Perdus / The Lost Sailors, 1997, and Le Soleil des mourants / A Sun for the Dying, 1999, plus some poetry and a collection of essays.

He died in 2000 of lung cancer at the age of 54, just five years after his literary debut. Official website for Jean-Claude Izzo (in French only).

MARSEILLE NOIR

Izzo did not live to see the extraordinary urban renewal and transformation of Marseille in the 21st century. But, for all its shiny new buildings and smartened-up image, the city continues to inspire new generations of noir writers.

Among them are François Thomazeau, whose Marseille Confidential (2018) was inspired by James Ellroy's LA Confidential (the two men are apparently good friends), Patrick Blaise, Cédric Fabre, Xavier-Marie Bonnot and Maurice Gouiran – the brother of André Gouiran, goatherd and master cheese-maker interviewed elsewhere on this site.

Much of their work is not yet available in English. But Bonnot's novels have been translated and you can read a collection of 14 short stories in Marseille Noir (2014).

Each one is by a different author and takes place in a different part of Marseille. It's part of a series set in cities all over North America and the rest of the world. Find Marseille Noir on Amazon.

For a light-hearted thriller by a British writer, try Peter Mayle's The Marseille Caper (2012). And don't forget that Marseille has also inspired very many noir film and television works from Borsalino and French Connection II to the Netflix miniseries Marseille and the very much superior The Last Panthers.

fun fact about le chien saucisseOne of Marseille's most unlikely noir heroes is a dachshund called (of course) Saucisse. Abandonned by his owner, le chien Saucisse was adopted by the team from L'Écailler du Sud, a publishing house which specialised in Marseille noir novels.

chien saucisseHe went on to appear in works by a number of writers, mainly Serge Scotto, who wrote a series of novels starring the doughty sausage dog.

Saucisse, pictured, eventually became a reality television star and was photographed with French celebrities.

He ran for office in the local mayoral elections in 2001, when he promised to fight against "a dog's life" and won 4.5 per cent of the vote. He died in 2014, at the ripe old age of 16.

A small square in Marseille's Cours Julien district was named after le chien Saucisse for a while, though the plaque was later removed. However, a dog park remains in his memory on the square Stephan in the city’s fourth arrondissement.

Finally… Maybe Marseille noir is nothing new. Because, for centuries, writers have been drawn to the city as a spectacular backdrop to dark tales of crime, intrigue, romance and betrayal.

Among the greatest: Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo, 1845) and Émile Zola (The Mysteries of Marseille, 1867).

Not all of these authors were French. Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit (1855-1857) opens with marvellously evocative descriptions of Marseille baking in the blinding glare of the August sun – and of the filth of the town prison, while Mark Twain had a few choice comments to make on the locals' personal hygiene in The Innocents Abroad (1869).

FAMOUS LITERARY QUOTES ABOUT MARSEILLE

Alexandre Dumas on Marseille's main thoroughfare: "A street of which the modern Phoceans are so proud that they say, with all the seriousness in the world, and with that accent which gives so much character to what they say, 'If Paris had La Canebière, Paris would be a mini-Marseille'." (The Count of Monte Cristo)

Charles Dickens on Marseille in August: "Everything in Marseille, and about Marseille, had stared at the fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away. The only things to be seen not fixedly staring and glaring were the vines drooping under their load of grapes." (Little Dorrit)

Mark Twain on Marseille soap: "In Marseille they make half the fancy toilet soap we consume in America, but the Marseillaise [sic] only have a vague theoretical idea of its use, which they have obtained from books of travel, just as they have acquired an uncertain notion of clean shirts." (The Innocents Abroad)

Jean-Claude Izzo on Marseille: "Marseille 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 realise, too late, that you're in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseille, even to lose, you have to know how to fight." (Total Chaos)

RELATED ARTICLES

Main Menu