Mediterranean Noir, Part 2
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Those heavy, gray clouds outside my window promise rain any minute. That’s fine with me. I can deal with a wet Labor Day. It just means I’ll be peacefully reading alone, which is exactly what I want. Yesterday I helped a friend paint his room. Saturday I hosted a friend from out of town. I’ve turned in my review to Shelf Awareness. I’ve been good. Sure, I’ve got another review overdue, and a meeting tonight, and a table piled high with advance reader copies, but so what?
I’m going to spend this rainy gray day in an armchair by the window irresponsibly reading a book that has nothing to do with new publications or promotions, the book I most want to read at this moment, the first volume of Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy, arguably his most famous book and the one which launched his meteoric career and came to define the genre of Mediterranean noir, Total Chaos.
Here we go, and it’s got a grabby beginning, all right – the taxi won’t go into this neighborhood where the central character wants to go. I’m already on edge. By the end of the Prologue, as the guy I thought was the central character is riddled with bullets, I realize he’s not the central character at all.
So far the story has been narrated in third person, but with the numbered chapters the tone switches. Now there’s a narrator, and as he reveals in the first chapter, he’s down on his knees beside the body of his childhood friend. There it is: the novel’s dark situation in a nutshell. Already I’m swept into this tragic tale of three boyhood friends – two of whom have become criminals, both of them in love with the same girl, and one of them, Fabio Montale, has become a cop. Manu has been gunned down three months before the story starts – his death has been ordered by a crime boss, we don’t know why. To avenge his friend, Ugo has come back to Marseilles and kills the crime lord, but by the end of the Prologue, Ugo is shot to death by the gung-ho captain of the organized crime police squad.
Wham – I’m so caught up in caring about these characters that reading this novel has become effortless. The pages are turning themselves. Poor Fabio is reeling, he’s lost his two best friends within three months…
As I lunge into the third chapter, the trajectory of the novel suddenly comes more sharply into focus. Fabio, the narrator, explains how central to all Marseilles life is a sense of honor. We realize slowly, as does the horrified old woman next door, that now Fabio is the only one of the three friends left alive, and if there is any honor to avenge, that duty falls to the good cop, even though the culprit is a police captain. All of this, along with the abduction of the Arab girl with whom Fabio has been secretly teetering on the edge of an affair.
The phone is ringing. And ringing.
Here’s an example of the kind of guy Fabio Montale is: a gang of teenage Arab boys has begun terrorizing the subway by taking over a car with loud music and drums. Fabio begs the police not to use their usual strong arm tactics (“They’re just kids!”) and instead Fabio gets on the subway, sits down in the midst of them, opens a newspaper, and says, “Couldn’t you make a little less noise?”
One of the most electrifying lines of dialogue I’ve read in years. I nearly leaped out of my armchair. Buddy lunged from my lap. And along with that thrilling, heroic jolt of character integrity, and a claw scratch across my bare leg that’s beginning to bleed, I found myself suddenly faced with a grim and guilty realization.
The bus I needed to catch to my meeting tonight just passed by my house three minutes ago.
Fine, well, I’m going to stop glancing at my watch. I’m going to stop turning my head in the direction of the clock. I’m going to forget all about the time, and go back to Marseilles, where a lone cop who’s a genuinely good man looks like he’s about to get caught between big time criminals and his own police force.