“As long as I was only whacking them in my dreams.”
It was a bizarre coincidence that the night I finished watching the French-Belgian film, The Connection, I started a story from Marseille Noir which mentioned Gaetan Zampa and the murder of a judge. The film doesn’t leave the impression that things were ‘cleaned up’ in Marseille–rather the opposite–that political and police corruption triumphed in the end. But that was in the 70s, so let’s fast forward to 2015 and Marseille Noir. How do a group of writers depict this famous city now? I’ll have to say that after finishing this collection, I don’t think any reader is going to rush out and book a trip to Marseille.
The book contains an introduction from author, contributor & Marseille resident, Cédric Fabre, which gives an overview of the current crime situation in Marseille and just why Marseilles is such great raw material for the crime novelist.
However, Marseille-bashing–the city is a byword for economic stagnation, political patronage, drug trafficking in the northern suburbs, organized crime (actually in decline since the demise of the French Connection smuggling chain), recurrent drive-by killings and, of course, police corruption–is grist for the mill of crime fiction.
Here’s a breakdown of the stories.
The Josettes Really Liked Me: Christian Garcin
Extreme Unction: François Thomazeau
Silence is Your Best Friend: Patrick Coulomb
The Dead Pay a Price for the Living: René Frégni
I’ll go away with the First man Who says I Love You: Marie Neuser
On Borrowed Time: Emmanuel Loi
What Can I Say: Rebecca Lighieri
Katrina: François Beaune
The Problem with the Rotary: Philippe Carrese
The Prosecution: Pia Petersen
Green, Slightly Gray: Serge Scotto
The Red Mule: Minna Sif
The Warehouse for People From Before: Salim Hatubou
La Solidarité: Cédric Fabre
I’m not going to discuss every story in the book, but instead I’ll mention my favourites: The Josettes Really Liked Me–a wonderful story set against a backdrop of the shifting face of crime in Marseille, Extreme Unction– the tale of a young boy who has a series of strange meetings with an even stranger man, and The Problem with the Rotary, a tale packed with atmosphere and dark rancid humour. In one story, The Prosecution: Pia Petersen, a disgruntled man finds himself stuck in Marseille, a “city where anything was possible.” In some of the stories, crime comes to the average person; In Silence is Your Best Friend, a teacher in Le Panier neighbourhood is plagued by noisy neighbours, and in I’ll go away with the First man Who Says I Love You–a woman takes her strayed lover on a bizarre, gory trip. Other stories argue that the past never really goes away; in The Dead Pay a Price for the Living, a ex-prisoner returns home to exact vengeance, and in On Borrowed Time, a man’s past catches up with him after ten years. I’ll also mention the story The Red Mule about a violent punk who works for the “narco-jihad” and poses for bloody selfies. Well you know that story isn’t going to end well…
The Josettes Really Liked Me (Christian Garcin) is told by a man who recalls the four sisters of Ange Malatesta.
I never knew which one of Ange Malatesta’s four sisters was the craziest. I don’t know anything about the symptoms of dementia, psychosis, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, so I certainly wouldn’t dare to diagnose them, but I do know they were all nuts. Besides, they took turns in a mental hospital, sometimes even together.
The narrator’s father is supposed to be a “salesman of wine and spirits” but is rumoured to work for the mob.
Sure, he was a mobster, but a small-time mobster, someone who never threatened anyone. Or not very often–or let’s say, not on a regular basis. Who in any case had never stolen, or killed anyone. He had connections to the Corsicans, who controlled the slot machines in the bars and cafes. He was a collector. Otherwise he was a very nice, sensitive, and generous man who loved his wife and son. I was an only child.
The narrator grows up with Ange, who comes from a Sicilian family. Ange’s father is a frightening presence, and Ange’s four sisters, known as “the four Joes,” are all completely crazy. When the narrator is nine, something strange occurs between him and one of ‘the Joes.’ It’s an event that reveals Ange Malatesta’s violent nature, but it’s also an event that leads to payback years later when the narrator is called to an appointment with Raymond Burr:
the nickname of a baron of the Damiani branch of the powerful Altieri family, who ran part of the city. Raymond Burr was mostly in charge of the Endoume-Corderie Catalans sector, going up toward Notre-Dame de la Garde. He was said to be utterly devoid of scruples. Some claimed his nickname came from his temperament, others said it was because he was paralyzed and in a wheelchair, which still others denied. Me, I had no idea: I’d never met him.
Extreme Unction (François Thomazeau) is a story centred on the Vélodrome Stadium. A narrator, now an adult, recalls 4 times when he was picked up from his grandmother’s home by a man and taken to Vélodrome Stadium.
We wouldn’t exchange a word. He’d light up a cigarette, lower his window, stick out his arm, and cough all the way. At the stadium, a flunkey would open the gate for him and we’d park smack in the middle of the empty parking lot in front of the main entrance that said Jean Bouin. When there was someone there beside the guard, he’d politely say hello to André, lowering his eyes. Occasionally some bolder guys would throw out a “Hi, Dédé.” And he’d cough to answer them.
André tells the teenage boy stories while passing crumpled bags of potato chips, and the trips end with a pizza from the stadium pizzeria. It’s not until the narrator is an adult that he finally figures some things out about these four trips.
With various Marseille locations central to the action, one of the really good things about this collection is that you can’t imagine that you are anywhere else in the world but Marseille.
The problem with Marseille’s South End is how strangely mixed it is. Opulent homes stand alongside sordid housing projects, luxurious villas next to derelict cabins, and terraces with swimming pools look down on boat garages with rusty doors turned into summer dwellings. The beautiful Roy d’Espagne park spread its lawns one alley away from the dilapidated Cayolle projects where the former shantytown that Le Corbusier had invented was razed to make way for a supermarket on permanent borrowed time by local vandals. Baumettes prison is at the end of all the dead ends, the old stone mansions still shelter a handful of end-of-the line aristocrats holding onto their ghosts and past glory, a few wealthy families are holed up in their famous architect-built houses, their windows stained with the sticky resin of the ever-present Aleppo pines. The nouveau riches and the old poor, the show-offs and the sluts. The sun weighs down on minds, the sea cools them off, the most beautiful streams in the whole world are within any tourist’s reach, and the dealers are two bus stops away from the nearby junior high. Marseille, its pervasive mess, its generalized thoughtlessness. But is that really a problem…? (from The Problem with the Rotary: Philippe Carrese)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: short story collections are a great way to discover new authors, and in this case, many of the authors are not available in English. Finally a word on the Akashic Noir series which was launched in 2004… If you like crime and have an interest in a particular country or city, this is a great way to be a safe armchair traveler. For those interested, I read Mexico City Noir and really liked it.
Translated by David Ball and Nicole Ball