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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Total Chaos

Jean-Claude Izzo

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To purchase Total Chaos

Title: Total Chaos
Author: Jean-Claude Izzo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 260 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Total Chaos - US
Total Chaos - UK
Total Chaos - Canada
in La trilogie Fabio Montale - Canada
Total Chaos - India
in La trilogie Fabio Montale - France
in Die Marseille-Trilogie - Deutschland
in La trilogia di Fabio Montale - Italia
Total Khéops - España
  • French title: Total Khéops
  • The first volume of Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy
  • Translated by Howard Curtis
  • Previously translated as One Helluva Mess (2000) by Vivienne Menkes-Ivry

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Our Assessment:

B+ : atmospheric Marseilles-crime novel, appealing narrator

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/11/2005 Marilyn Stasio
TLS . 26/7/2002 David McAllister
TLS . 21/6/2013 Derek B. Miller

  From the Reviews:
  • "Jean-Claude Izzo, whose noir crime novels set in Marseilles are so thick with local color it almost smothers the story. In Total Chaos, the geography seems to dictate the narrative" - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

  • "While Montale's robust style of detection is derived from Chandler, Izzo's terse prose is lifted straight from Hemingway. Neither technique proves particularly effective. The momentum built by the plot is constantly checked by the author's decision to break every paragraph into a series of three-word sentences. There is none of Hemingway's artful parataxis in Izzo's prose, just an irritating over-reliance on the full stop." - David McAllister, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Yet the facts are more interesting than Izzo's fiction, which is at times melodramatic and sentimental. There are too many declarations about the meaning of life or the absence of one, too many pauses to listen to jazz without evoking it properly, and too many irresistible women, all of them remarkably tolerant of each other's effects on Montale -- when he can spare time from being beaten up or philosophizing." - Derek B. Miller, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Total Chaos is narrated (for the most part) by Fabio Montale, a cop who is good at his job but can't always play by the sometimes loose (and corrupt) rules of the Marseilles police and thus isn't on any career fast-track. He had two close buddies when he was young, Manu and Ugo, and those are ties that bind forever. But after a youthful small-time crime spree that escalated too far Fabio decided he had to change his life. Eventually he became a policeman, but as another friend of theirs from those days notes:

None of us have known what to do with our lives. Cop or robber, it makes no difference ...
       When Manu gets killed, Ugo comes to get revenge. He's successful -- but then immediately gets himself set up and taken down, with the police obviously playiing some sort of role in what looks to be a fairly elaborate game. Fabio has to find out what happened, and so he gets involved too -- though he doesn't understand nearly all the people and things that are involved.
       Brutal killers, rape and murder, drugs, and what looks to be a Mafia power struggle all play significant roles. Loner and outsider Fabio tries his best, but he's only able to do so much. (And sometimes that is too much.) . Others in his orbit also come in harm's way. Appealingly, Fabio does figure things out and brings them to a head -- and, in doing so, also fails, proving again that he's a mere cog in a machinery that's way, way bigger than him.
       Like his friends, Fabio is an outsider (of Italian heritage) in that ultimate outsider port city, Marseilles, and it's that beloved, crappy city that plays the central role in the novel. Marseilles is home, and only the locals can fully appreciate it:
     Marseilles 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 realize, too late, that you're in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.
       Marseilles is also changing: the neighbourhoods, the mix of people. But the underlying feel of the place seems unshakeable -- as does the endemic corruption and violence.
       Fatalism seems Fabio's only approach to life. He believes in doing the right thing, but he knows that that's often enough to get you killed. He shrugs his shoulders and does what he can.
       There's also a nice sort of romantic streak to Fabio: he believes in love, but he also knows that he doesn't live in a world where he can sustain it. Among the more extreme -- and yet also typical -- scenes has him make love to one of the women in the periphery of his life:
     We made love as if for the first time. Shyly and passionately. Without any ulterior motive. (...) We lay like that, silently, staring into the distance, each searching for a possible happiness. By the time I left her, she'd stop being a hooker. But I was still just a fucking cop.
     And waiting for me on the other side of the door, without a shadow of a doubt, was all the world's corruption.
       He bears the burden well; Izzo has a nice touch here -- though it does occasionally feel almost relentlessly downbeat. But he gets the pulse of the place down so well -- the immigrant, police, and crime sub-cultures, especially -- that it's a really appealing read.
       The plot is a bit messy (fairly close to 'total chaos' ...) -- realistically so, with shadowy figures and unclear details -- but it's Fabio's voice, and the setting (Marseilles), that do make this thriller a cut above most.

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Total Chaos: Reviews: Jean-Claude Izzo: Other books by Jean-Claude Izzo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jean-Claude Izzo was a popular French author. He was born in 1945 and died in 2000.

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