By Jean-Claude Izzo
Translated from the French by Howard Curtis
Europa Editions. 248 pp. Paperback, $14.95
By Peter Temple
MacAdam/Cage. 399 pp. $24
You can make a case that the noir novel was invented by the American writers Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, although they didn't use that word to describe their work. Neither did the American filmmakers who in the late 1930s and early '40s began to make dark, violent, pessimistic movies that were far outside the Hollywood mainstream. It remained for French intellectuals, when those movies reached Paris after the war ended, to recognize a new and distinct sensibility and dub it film noir. Purists argue that true film noir existed only from 1941 ("The Maltese Falcon") to 1958 ("Touch of Evil"), but many of us think noir is alive and well, updated on the screen in films such as "Chinatown" and "Body Heat" and in innumerable hard-edged novels that set bruised idealists loose in a world of botched crimes, revenge and betrayal, dangerous women, corrupt police, cheap whiskey, rain-slick streets and all-pervasive nihilism. Today, noir is a universal language. Here are novels by two talented writers, one French, one Australian, that are superficially different but that both draw from the deep, dark well of noir.
The Frenchman, Jean-Claude Izzo, was born in Marseilles in 1945 and died there in 2000. Ten years ago he made his name with this novel, "Total Chaos," the first installment in his Marseilles Trilogy, which won critical praise and huge sales throughout Europe and is now being published in this country for the first time. "Total Chaos" (wonderful title) is above all about Marseilles. Its plot may vanish at times, but the reader is always immersed, all but claustrophobically, in the streets, smells, food, bars, racism, politics, gangsters and history of the city. Its hero, the honest and world-weary policeman Fabio Montale, eats cod tongues and cuttlefish pizza and downs endless pastis. He has learned that "dawn is merely an illusion that the world is beautiful." He recalls the days of his youth when "you got home, took a shower, had dinner, then went for a walk along the Canebiere as far as the harbor." But the city went into decline: "The more unemployment there was, the more aware people became of the immigrants" -- Arabs, whom Fabio befriends even as other cops scorn and abuse them.
Fabio loves Leila, an Arab college girl, but he won't sleep with her because he knows she would only be hurt. They part, and he consoles himself with Marie-Lou, a West Indian streetwalker. The sex in the book, and the sexual ennui, are gloriously French, never more so than when he observes, "When they made love, her armpits smelled of basil." When Leila is murdered, Fabio sets out to find her killers, only to discover that "Leila's death was like a stone cast into water, sending ripples in all directions, and cops, gangsters and fascists were moving within those ripples." Izzo's plot is labyrinthine, but his novel is rich, ambitious and passionate, and his sad, loving portrait of his native city is amazing.
Peter Temple, the author of "Black Tide," has written eight novels, four of which have won Australia's Ned Kelly Award for crime fiction. Four of his novels feature the trouble-prone lawyer Jack Irish. "Black Tide" is the second Jack Irish novel and the first to be published here in hardback. I enjoyed it despite the fact that I often didn't know what the devil was going on. Temple starts with a basic private-eye plot: An old man, a friend of Irish's late father, asks the lawyer to find his son, who has run off with his dad's life savings. The son proves to work for a mysterious international corporation that is involved in drugs, arms sales, money laundering and murder. Government officials warn Irish off the case: "You're dealing with people, they can't buy you, they'll load you up, kill your friend, kill your wife, kill your child, kill you, it's all the same." But of course Irish won't quit -- how could he let down his father's best friend?
The business dealings that surround this killer corporation are bewildering, yet I read along more or less contentedly because Temple writes with sophistication and wit. Irish has had an unhappy love life: One wife left him, another was killed by one of his ex-clients, and his most recent love skipped to Sydney for a job in television. He reflects: "Love. Not a word for casual use. The life-scarred use the word with extreme caution." Still, Irish retains his eye for the ladies. Watching one woman cross the room, he observes admiringly, "Even in low heels, she had an unusual leg-torso ratio for a small person." A sexist remark, perhaps, but not an inaccurate glimpse into the higher levels of girl-watching. Elsewhere, Temple offers delicious flirtation scenes, which are more interesting than sex scenes, for roughly the same reason that chess is more interesting than checkers.
There is much more going on in "Black Tide" than flirtation and conspiracy. Irish does woodworking in his spare time, hangs out at the Prince of Prussia pub with old-timers who are obsessed by their local football team, and is working with a friend, a retired jockey, to uncover racetrack skulduggery. Some of this is fine, but there's too much of it -- the book is longer than it needs to be. But that's an interesting thing about both these novels. If you go back to, say, "The Maltese Falcon," you'll find that almost everything in it is directly tied to the crimes in question. These novels, like many others today, work on a far larger canvas. They seek to show us not simply a crime but the world it exists in, not just characters' actions but their inner lives. Sometimes such novels overreach -- sometimes we yearn for the kick-in-the-teeth simplicity of classic noir -- but ambition is a good thing, too, and when it works, it can make magic.