Those who haven't read "Total Chaos", the first book in Izzo's Marseille-set trilogy, needn't worry that they are missing crucial information. This second book (whose title is a slang term referring to the slaves who rowed in Roman galleys and is used to express the sense of solidarity felt by those in the slums), picks up the life of Fabio Montale about a year after the events of "Total Chaos" and only refers to them in passing. Since being drummed out of the corrupt Marseille police force following that adventure, Montale has been mostly sipping wine at home while watching the sea, or out fishing on his little boat. This tranquility is broken when his beautiful cousin Gelou, whom he hasn't seen for twenty years, comes seeking his help.
It seems her teenage son has gone missing and probably came to Marseille to meet an Arab girl he became sweet on. Alas, a prologue shows the reader the tragic outcome of this assignation, and it doesn't take Montale long to discover that the boy was shot to death -- possibly in connection with the killing of an exiled Algerian intellectual. Meanwhile a social worker who spent a lot of time in the projects and was a friend of Montale's is killed before his eyes in a drive-by shooting. It's the book's one significant weakness that these two seemingly unrelated victims both happen to have ties to Montale, since this coincidence is what allows the plot to unravel in the manner it does.
As in "Total Chaos", things get very convoluted very quickly as Montale runs around Marseille getting entangled with all kinds of characters. There are racist cops, fundamentalist Algerian immigrants with ties to the civil war back home (the book was originally published in 1996), a cruel junkyard owner, a Vietnamese vixen, a struggling heroin whore, and various mafia bosses. The coincidence noted above puts Montale in the driver's seat, as he's the only person with the access to all these different strata who has the drive and desire to put all the pieces together. With a rather sympathetic police detective backing his play, Montale runs amok, disrupting the plans of several groups of people in his drive to get at the truth.
Like his protagonist, the author was born and raised in the seedy city of Marseille, and watched it turn from a Southern European melting pot to a post-colonial melting pot of 1.5 million people. Like his protagonist, he had a front-row seat (as a journalist) to the major social and economic shifts of the last several decades, and the xenophobia they have engendered. As in "Total Chaos", Izzo conveys a very Gallic sense of disenchantment and fatalism. It's a complicated portrait of a city, loving and nostalgic, yet sad and angry. In that sense, the book works much better as a social portrait of a city than it does as a crime story. I'd really recommend it much more to those with an interest in Southern France or who might be visiting Marseille, than I would to crime buffs. It would also, along with the film Hate, be useful for those seeking to understand the last year's Paris riots.
What do we owe the dead? Ought that debt to outweigh our responsibilities to ourselves? Of the four friends, two are dead and the survivors stagger blindly about between the two opposing points. The book sees no way out.