Marseille crime writers have uncovered a rich seam of adventure and murder on the streets of the city.
The Daniel Jacquot detective series from well-travelled British journalist Martin O’Brien is set in and around Marseille. Jacquot’s signature characteristics – all detectives are given their personal quirks – are that he was once a French Rugby international who scored a winning goal against England, that he wears his hair in a pony-tail, and loves good food and wine (so very much a Marseille person in this last respect). At the time of writing there are eight in the series. I cannot claim to have read them, but someone mentioned to me they thought Blood Counts was one of the best.
A shorter series – but from a prize-winning writer – are the Commandant De Palma ‘investigations’ by French writer and documentary film-maker Xavier-Marie Bonnot. They tend to cover rather original ‘territory’, using elements from ancient history and pre-history, though the setting is modern. The three set directly in Marseille are The First Fingerprint (2002, translation 2008), The Voice of the Spirits (2010, translation 2012), and The First Man (2013, translation 2015).
Fun and sunshine
The Marseille Caper (2012) by British ex-pat Peter Mayle (famous for A Year in Provence) features his sleuth Sam Levitt. If you like detective fiction but would rather have it without too much blood and violence and with a bit of fun and sunshine, then you might enjoy this. Not great literature by any stretch of the imagination, but it takes you to Marseille …
And if you want some fast-paced amusement with a little bit of underworld and some sexiness thrown in, there are three books by former British radio comedy writer, Peter Child. He mainly writes detective fiction set in Victorian London, but he has given us three stories about the Marseille taxi driver, Michel Ronay.
His job brings him into contact with a whole range of Marseille characters, from gangsters to gendarmes, difficult tourists and shady deals. The first, Marseille Taxi (2002) shows us ten manic days in his life in which both wife and mistresses seem set on exhausting him … in different ways. This was followed by Christmas in Marseille (2003) and Return to Marseille (2007).
One last book before we leave Marseille – as very suitable one to finish on: Himmler’s Cook (2013, translated 2015) by Franz-Olivier Giesbert. I absolutely adored it. This is the story told by an old Marseillaise cook, Rose Lempereur, Armenian by birth and, by something of a miracle, surviving the genocide in which the rest of her family die. At 105 years old, she’s lived through the string of horrors that was the twentieth century. Nothing seems to have fazed her and, despite its dark matter, we relish the picaresque story of her life.
She tells her story in Marseille, arriving there after the fall of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, and although it ranges far and wide, it is to Marseille that the story constantly returns and which is clearly her ‘spiritual’ home: like the characters in Jean-Claude Izzo’s novels, Rose has a tremendous appetite for life – for food, wine, and sex. Such appetites have helped her survive, it seems.
Her travels include a spell in New York and Chicago, as well as in Mao’s China (I won’t spoil it by telling you how she got there!). Before her escape to America, she has the Nazi invasion of France to deal with and the disappearance of her beloved (by then ex-) husband to suffer, while as a result of her skills as a cook, much enjoyed by Himmler when he visits her restaurant in Paris, she does, indeed, become ‘Himmler’s cook’. At one point she finds herself having to cook for Hitler himself, during a stay in his famous Berghof where some high-ranking Nazis take rather too much of a fancy to this very attractive blond woman … Not that she takes things sitting down: she cooks up her own forms of revenge for atrocities committed and always feels much better when those who have inflicted terrible suffering on others are themselves made to pay the price..
Marseille seems to be the ideal place for Rose to tell her incredible tale – a great port from which people leave on distant voyages, often as a matter of survival, and to which they come from all parts of the world, often fleeing horror back home. Details of the mouth-watering dishes she creates (and there are a couple of actual recipes at the end of the book) adds a decidedly pleasurable experience as we are drawn into Rose’s own love of life and all that sustains it. One of the joys of the book are the ‘walk-on’ parts for a number of well-known people (not just Himmler and Hitler).
I think the author must have had a great deal of fun in the process of introducing Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren into the story! But the greatest achievement is to revisit the appalling history of the last century – not ignoring any of its horrors – while setting against it the kind of hope and human energy and humour – and sense of justice! – represented by Rose, who promises at the end of the novel that ‘my lips will always go on moving, even when they are mingled with the earth, and that they will go on saying yes to life – yes, yes, yes …‘
Not forgetting Jean-Claude Izzo of course – Marseille’s greatest master of noir – who you can read all about here.
Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series. She is the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published by Oxygen Books.