The Marseille Master: Why you must read Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille novels


jean claude izzo
Jean-Claude Izzo

Be cause he is regarded as ‘the’ Marseille writer, I’m giving the fiction of Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000) a section to itself. (We’ve already met him as the writer of the little essays collected in Garlic, Mint, and Sweet Basil: essays on Marseilles, Mediterranean cuisine, and noir  fiction – collected and translated 2013.)

He is best known for his ‘Marseille Trilogy’ of noir detective novels featuring Fabio Montale, said to be the trigger of a new sub-genre of the crime novel, ‘Mediterranean noir‘. Izzo had long been a poet, playwright and screen-writer but suddenly became famous in the mid 1990s with the publication of this short crime series. Between the second and third, he published another ‘tough’ novel set in Marseille, The Lost Sailors (1997, translation 2007).


a sun for the dying
Jean-Claude Izzo A Sun for the Dying ‘His masterpiece’

Between the last Fabio Montale story and his early death in 2000, Izzo published what many consider his masterpiece – A Sun for the Dying (1999, translation 2008). Most of the book is set among the down-and-outs in Paris as they try to survive life on the streets in the winter. The protagonist, Rico, finally decides to make his way down to Marseilles and the last quarter of the book is set there. I’m going to start with this novel as I agree with those who consider it his best.

In his portrayal of those for whom life has gone wrong, Izzo never sentimentalises or idealises. What he does is humanise them. He shows what has gone wrong in their lives and how, like all of us, they don’t always take the ‘wise’ option in how they deal with it. A wife wants a divorce from a husband who is rarely at home but who adores her and their son: he takes to the bottle and it’s downhill all the way. Bad luck and bad judgement.

Some manage to hang onto their humanity, their capacity for tenderness and love. They manage to care for and about each other to the extent that they are able in such reduced circumstances. Recent conflicts in Europe have brought Rico – the main character – one last love in the form of a Bosnian prostitute trying to survive in Marseille. But not all people in the tough underworld are like this: some are simply cruel and exploitative. They lie, steal, and are violent. Only some are able to retain a sense of the beauty of the world, of friendship, of love.

In all his books there’s a lot about friendship, comradeship, food, music, and love in all forms. There’s a whole lot of sex … or rather ‘sexiness’ (it’s not pornographic), too. I occasionally felt some of the sex was there to hook the reader more effectively so we’d take on board the really important things at the heart of Izzo’s work: the loathing of racial, ethnic, and cultural prejudices and the championing of the vibrant diversity he sees as characterising his beloved native city at its best – along with its joy in good food, music, dancing, literature, and the beauty of the world.

the lost sailors
Jean-Claude Izzo The Lost Sailors ‘A microcosm of the world’

The Lost Sailors (1997, translation 2007) features crew members of a rusting hulk of a ship, the Aldebaran, stranded in the port of Marseille when the boat’s owner becomes bankrupt. As with A Sun for the Dying, we are drawn into the back-stories of the characters – their loves and losses – and also follow them around the streets and bars of the city.

The underworld

We see how sexual appetite can so easily get a lone man into trouble on those streets and in those bars and, again, we see a whole range of the tough underworld of Marseille – the exploiters and the exploited, the wise and the foolish, the cruel and the kind, the greedy and the generous. It’s a microcosm of the world and Izzo is at pains to make us feel our common humanity: racism, discrimination, hatred and injustice among humans is what spoils the world.

The pleasures of friendship, good food, music, kindness, love: these are the values Izzo wants to promote. One of the reasons he sets his story among sailors is made clear early in the novel during an argument between the main character, Diamantis, and Marseille resident Dimitri, himself an immigrant.

‘Look, I’m French, O.K.? I did my military service. But it’s not just that, it’s their culture. Their attitude. They’re different. You just have to look at them, They’ll always be Arabs. Foreigners.’

 On the Aldebaran, there were two Burmese, an Ivorian, a Comorian, a Turk, a Moroccan, and a Hungarian. Abdul Aziz [the captain] was Lebanese, and he [Diamantis] was Greek. Who was the foreigner when you were at sea? For nearly thirty years he had sailed with all the races in the world, on all the seas of the world, and the question of race had never come up. That was how he answered Dimitri.

‘Not everyone gets along, sure. Some people try to lord it over others. Some people aregood at their jobs, others aren’t. But I’ve never noticed that much difference between the races.’

 And the women of Marseille? Yes, there’s the lovely Mariette, ‘A real Marseillaise. Cheerful and self-confident, with hazel eyes that weren’t easily fooled,’ to the seemingly ruthless Lalla and Gaby who lead Nedim on until he’s stripped of everything and even misses his one chance of turning his life around as a result. We can see what is going to happen – and it’s partly Nedim’s own fault for giving in to his ‘manly urges’ – but we are shown how some of those at the bottom of the social heap have become ruthless to the point of inhumanity in order to survive.

Victims of greed

Yet even Lalla and Gaby turn out to have been the victims of the greed and cruelty of men and are better than they seem – when they encounter kindness. I won’t give any more away … But one little quirk – possibly a passing literary joke from Izzo: in passing, we meet an Irishman who, though not a novelist, just happens to be called Colm Toibin, though the latter was not yet the famous literary figure he is today and had only published two or three novels before Izzo was writing The Lost Sailors. Had they met? Was it a weird coincidence that Izzo put those two Irish names together? (I wish I knew!)

Although there’s a continual flow of sub-surface criminality in Izzo’s other novels, it’s only with the ‘Marseille Trilogy’ that violent crime becomes the raison d’être of the narrative. I have to come clean and say I am not a great fan of crime writing and ‘deep noir‘. I don’t enjoy descriptions of violence or mutilated bodies or a continual sense of fear.  But I can appreciate how Izzo uses the form to ‘discuss’ with the reader, as it were, what he believes to be important. As in his other novels, the good are never super good (even Fabio was involved in crime in his youth, but went on to become a policeman while his friends stayed on the wrong side of the law) and sometimes the bad have their reasons. It’s all about human complexity and what can drive people to act in whatever way they do.

Loves his city

But when an author loves his city, he will be at pains to correct a one-sided view of it as nothing but nastiness and crime – even when such things are the centre of his stories. About a third of the way into the first of the trilogy, Total Chaos (1995, translation 2005), the cop narrator, Fabio Montale reflects:

I was more and more disconnected from reality. I moved through Marseille, but I’d stopped seeing anything except the violence and racism simmering just under the surface. I was starting to forget that life was more than that. That this was a city where, despite everything, people liked to live, to have a good time. That happiness was a new idea every day, even if the night ended with some strong-arm guy checking your identity.

total chaos
Jean-Claude Izzo Total Chaos ‘Rich and complex and written out of love’

As with his other novels, the story comes with generous helpings of Marseille food, along with descriptions of the city, music, films, and plenty of books. Despite the ‘sex and violence’, I ended up loving this book because it was rich and complex and written, essentially, out of love. And so I started the second volume with a sense of affection both towards Fabio himself and even more towards his creator.

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.


Malcolm Burgess and Heather Reyes are the publishers of Oxygen Books' city-pick series, featuring some of the best writing on favourite world cities. These include Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Dublin, London, St Petersburg, Istanbul and New York.

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