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Jean-Claude Izzo, 'One Helluva Mess'

Arcadia Books 2002. ISBN 1900850451, £10.99

Could it be that cities get the literary detectives they deserve? What does Ian Rankin's Rebus tell us about contemporary Edinburgh, or even Colin Dexter's Morse about Oxford's dreaming spires?

Well, it's time to add a new name and metropolis to the pantheon, and this guy is distinctive in that he manages to occupy an unlikely middle-ground when it comes to attitude and inclination.

Jean-Claude Izzo's complex creation, the Marseille-dwelling Inspector Montale, is a bon viveur and sensualist, but faces severe challenges to his pursuit of the good life in the shape of resident Front National thugs, Mafia corruption, growing fundamentalism in the suburbs and a failing social fabric on all levels. North Africans are regularly on the receiving end of the port's racist violence in this pacy, sharply etched and ultimately compassionate portrait of a city at war with itself and its colonial heritage.

A personal grief leads us into this heart of darkness - when a childhood friend of Montale's is shot by a dodgy cop, the incident brings Montale face to face with Le Pen's outriders and all their associated trouble.

The French like their crime bleak and existentially-tinged and Izzo sells by the thousands at home. The book has already been made into a TV movie (with Alain Delon) and a feature is planned.

In film terms indeed, Marseille has received a shot in the arm with the multi-layered, class-conscious and committed works of Robert Gue'diguian. He too shows normal people trying to survive and grow against a background of unemployment, societal tensions and prejudice, both ethnic and economic. Both he and Izzo are natives of the historically rebellious city and a deep empathy with its particular personality informs their takes on its myriad stories. Local focus then, but much wider relevance and a great reading experience along the way.

Topics: Culture