The Marseille Thriller Novel

It was born in the mid-Nineties but originates from the city's infamous reputation since the early 20th century. This literary movement – a spinoff from the 'Roman Noir' crime novel – takes an uncompromising view of France's social and political realities.

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In the Nineties, Marseille's cultural life was at its heights: people partied the night away at the 'Fiesta des Suds', the 'Friche de Belle de Mai' artistic laboratory was under way and the city had two of its very own musical spokesmen in the shape of 'Massilia Sound System' and 'IAM'. In 1993, the irrestistible 'local lad' became part of the national landscape thanks to IAM's huge hit Je Danse Le Mia. The city once referred to as 'leprous' dared face itself in the mirror and confront the word with its own arguments. Within just a few months, four novels set to become the flagships of a new literary wave – the 'Polar Marseillais' (Marseille Thriller) - were published. But hadn't Marseille already been sowing the seeds of this creative potential for nearly a century?

Fighting the reputation

Plunged into a crisis since the end of the colonies, the image of 'M la Maudite' (Marseille the Damned) was definitively blackened by The French Connection in the Nineties: this vast drug trafficking network with the United States (together with many associated criminal affairs) brought to fame legendary gangsters such as the Guérini brothers, Tany Zampa, Francis Le Belge and Jacky Le Mat, overshadowing the reputation of Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in the film Borsalino (Jacques Deray, 1970). A new generation of authors and artists were keen to beat this apocalyptic picture into retreat. While plans were being made to transform the city thanks to the Euromed project (an urban refurbishment project launched in 1995) and the National Front was putting in spanner in the works of French politics, various authors seized the city's identity and anchored their own stories and characters there, breaking away from caricatures such as the police commissioner N’guyên Van Loc, nicknamed 'Le Chinois' – the hero of a TV series that clocked up record audiences from 1992 onwards. In February 1994, Les Chapacans by Michèle Courbou (published in Gallimard's 'Série Noire') got the ball rolling, followed by Trois Jours d’Engatse by Philippe Carrese (late 1994, Meditorial). Total Khéops by Jean-Claude Izzo was published in January 1995 (Gallimard 'Série Noire') and La Faute à Degun by François Thomazeau completed the quartet (July 1996, also published by Méditorial).

A new generation of literary leaders and style icons

The movement's incredible aesthetic potential jumped out at the first readers: evoking social violence without taboos, the stories revealed an immoderate (but frustrated) love for the city, through never-before-used words and images. They paid tribute to the French neo-noir movement, from Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo (1844 and already a genuine thriller), to Aix-born Emile Zola's The Mysteries of Marseille (a deliriously-detailed dive into legal archives written in 1867) and unveiled a world instilled with the Orient and Africa through migratory movements, similar to that of Pierre Mac Orlan (Quartier Réservé, 1932). With their uncompromising style, constantly torn between social criticism and political disillusion, the ambiguous ethics of the Marseille neo-noir novels were redolent with disenchantment. Philippe Carrèse describes with humour and Rabelasian verve the tribulations of zealous righters of wrongs making their own justice against corrupt politicians, while François Thomazeau stages his stories in Marseille's colourful bars and night clubs – a microcosm he uses to decrypt the city. Deprived of credible representatives for many years, youngsters from the city's troubled council estates are at the centre of Michèle Courbou's narrative, while cosmopolitanism takes on lifestyle status in Jean-Claude Izzo's work.
Izzo, who borrowed the title Total Kheops from the group IAM for his trilogy completed with Chourmo and Solea, was rapidly – and somewhat unwillingly – elected as the movement's leader. The firepower of his publisher Gallimard, together with his elegant style and stories instilled with brotherly poetry worthy of Louis Brauquier, imposed him as the ambassador of this new vision of Marseille.

This new, poetic facet contrasted strikingly with the city's usual demonization and the aseptic character of 'white' literature: the Marseille thriller was not only entertaining, it also opened the floodgates to several decades of frustration for lovers of this sunny city with its share of darkness. The stories lead readers on a tour of the city's most famous sights: the Vieux Port (Old Port), Panier Quarter, Notre-Dame de la Garde, Quartiers Nord and 'Calanques' fjords… "Each author paints the stage with their own genius", says Alain Guillemin in his detailed analysis of the phenomenon (1). Referring to Trois Jours d’Engatse, Philippe Carrèse notes with humour that "French readers discovered an unexpected Marseille, far removed from the usual clichés; a new, mysterious and exotic place they could explore without renewing their passport or changing their Francs into local currency." (2)
Hervé Lucien-January 2017
(1) Alain Guillemin "Le polar marseillais, reconstitution d'une identité locale et constitution d'un sous-genre", A contrario, 1/2003 (Vol. 1), p. 45-60.
(2) L’Ours Polar, November 2000
All unreferenced interviews were conducted by the author of this article

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