Fabio Montale is a direct descendant of Philip Marlowe, that original great noir detective. He operates in another coastal city filled with more problems than solutions. In this first book of the Marseilles trilogy, he is a police officer, but soon enough that career is set aside, just as Marlowe had done. We never really know why Marlowe left the force, but Montale’s reasons are all laid out before us.
Izzo started as a journalist and seems to have come to mystery writing later in life, just like Raymond Chandler. While Chandler had little detective experience though a fair bit of experience of the world, Izzo had a wealth of research on European organized crime providing background for his stories.
The repeated introductions in the beginning of the American editions of Izzo’s work emphasize his place as the founding father of Mediterranean noir. I happily admit Izzo’s place in the pantheon of mystery writers, even if his career was cut short by death at 55. I do have to wonder if an author publishing in the 1990s has really created a new branch on the genre tree. Izzo certainly emphasized elements not always at the forefront of previous works.
Montale, like Izzo, is the child of immigrants and the author writes quite eloquently about the experience of the outsider in a new land. He loves Marseilles and its disassociation from the rest of Provence (and the rest of France). The port of first entry for people from all across the sea, Marseilles is marked by repeated waves of new arrivals. The latest are always resented until the next wave blesses them with an air of acceptability.
In his nonfiction, Izzo frequently writes about feeling rootless and being able to call the road his home. He seems determined to convince the reader of his comfort anywhere within sight of the sea, but it always circles back to Marseilles, particularly the cuisine.
All those great French crime films of the fifties were heavily influenced by the Hollywood noir flicks that preceded them. They have their own style and offer their own innovations. Perhaps it is impossible not to see a fresh branch in their creations, one infused with European culture and naturally filled with French images. Their experience of post-war life affects the storytelling as much as Italian cinema reflects their experiences.
So… perhaps Izzo is onto something new. Marseilles is a global crossroads where North Africa meets Western Europe. Raw emotions are on display as the National Front hides its message of hate in a sheepskin of political expediency while allowing criminals to shelter within their party. Montale is not Izzo but they both fight for fair treatment for the disenfranchised. Chandler laced his books with call outs on abuses of the downtrodden by those in power. Marlowe and Montale are knights on the chessboard working for the greater good that can sometimes only be found in le noir.
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