Game for Five, by Marco Malvaldi and translated by Howard Curtis
Game for Five was the last book I read in 2015. I read it in the run up to New Year while feeling slightly under the weather from a cold and from the usual Christmas excess. I wanted to lie quietly in a room digesting and recovering, and knew I wasn’t up to anything too serious or dark.
One of the advantages of following book blogs is that you’re never short of recommendations for any kind of book you might wish (it’s also one of the disadvantages). Need a book for a post-Christmas slump? Not a problem.
The classic Italian neighbourhood bar isn’t somewhere you go just to get drunk. Instead it’s a mix of social hub and of breathing space between work and home. A good Italian bar is civilisation with an espresso machine.
Massimo is the owner and barman of Bar Lume, a neighbourhood bar in a seaside town near Pisa. His regulars include a group of four old men, one of them his grandfather Ampelio, who like to while away their day sitting outside chatting and playing cards. When he’s quiet he joins them and if he’s called away they cover for him. The Italian for to chat by the way is chiacchierare, isn’t that great? So onomatopoeic.
The tourist trade keeps the bar busy, but mostly at predictable times of day leaving Massimo with a lot of free time and an easy life. That all changes when a late night drunk stumbles across the corpse of a murdered girl, and the first place he goes to for help is Massimo’s bar. Massimo ends up second on the scene and first to call the police, and to his dismay it’s local cop Inspector Fusco who heads up the investigation.
Fusco isn’t exactly Inspector Morse, and he quickly latches on a local boy who hasn’t got an alibi but who hasn’t much to link him with the crime either. Reluctantly Massimo realises that if the truth’s to come out he has to lend a hand and do a little digging of his own. Massimo doesn’t have the limited resources of the town police department, but he does have something much better – he has his elderly regulars and through them the entire town’s rumour mill:
How the hell is it that people always know what’s going on? Massimo thought. What do they have in their homes, satellite receivers? “Listen, we’ll tell you what O.K. told us . . . ” “That seems only fair, and I’ll tell you what Fusco told me.” Four timeworn necks craned towards the counter. “I don’t believe it!” Ampelio said. “Has he found something?” “But keep it to yourselves as long as possible, please.” Believe us, the four faces said, while Massimo’s face made an effort to keep as deadpan as possible. The important thing, when you gossip, is to maintain a formal structure. The person spreading the gossip has to demand the maximum secrecy, and the listeners have to grant it. Obviously, they’ll broadcast the news as widely as they can later. It’s just a matter of time. If someone says, “Keep it to yourselves as long as possible,” he doesn’t mean “Tell it to the fewest possible people,” but “Resist for at least a little while before coming out with it, that way it’ll be harder to trace it back to me.”
Massimo’s a genial and basically good-natured sort. People like him and they’re happy to talk to him. Soon even Inspector Fusco realises that Massimo might actually be useful and that there are doors that open easily for a barman that remain firmly closed to the police.
What follows is a fairly classic amateur detective novel. I worked out whodunnit a little bit before the reveal, but it’s not one of those books where the point is to treat it like a crossword puzzle and see if you can beat the mystery. Instead it’s an utterly charming slice of small town Italian life, with a murder thrown in to give everyone something to do.
The real joy here is the interaction between the characters. Massimo’s grandfather, Ampelio, is on a restricted diet due to health issues and so is constantly sneaking in illicit ice-creams and lying about how many he’s already had. In between, he manages to give Massimo an affectionate hard time:
“Nice to see you, son,” Ampelio greeted him. “We’ve been waiting for you for two hours. I guess you were scared they’d take away your pillow and you were hugging it for safekeeping.”
Massimo and his regulars are all hugely entertaining to spend time with. The rest of the cast are generally fun and well (if lightly) drawn, and even the omniscient narratorial voice gets in a fair few knowing asides:
“The man’s a lecher. They say he once got a sixteen-year-old girl pregnant and made her have an abortion. I was told that by Zaira, whose grandson works at the Imperiale.” (Another basic rule, when sticking your nose into the business of people you’ve never seen or known, is to back up your statements with specific references to people or, better still, the relatives of people whose knowledge of the subject is guaranteed by some connection or other with the person in question. This makes even the most utter bullshit sound reassuringly logical.)
There’s also a wonderful running gag where Massimo refuses to serve drinks he doesn’t approve of. Massimo has strong views on what drinks are appropriate to any given time of day or temperature; asking for a cappuccino after breakfast is more likely to result in a lecture than a coffee.
It’s fair to say that Malvaldi is stronger on his male characters than his female. Massimo is slightly old school, having chosen his barmaid as much for her breasts as her brain (though she is pretty competent). I got the sense that perhaps Malvaldi himself wasn’t greatly different, since the narrator at one point comments on women who look gorgeous but ruin everything when they open their mouths to reveal crass local accents (“Don’t speak, girls, just let yourselves be looked at.”) At the same time, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know what he meant, so perhaps I’m just being a little Guardian-readery there.
Otherwise, this is a warm and likable novel. It’s a book to sink into after a crappy day with a generous glass of wine close to hand. It was perfect for what I wanted when I turned to it, and that’s no small thing.
As the cover suggests, this is the first of a series. The real test for me always when someone reviews a series’ novel is whether they plan to read another. Well, these aren’t all translated yet, but I absolutely intend to pick up the sequel, and I look forward to meeting Massimo and his regulars again. Mine’s a Negroni.
I heard about this from JacquiWine Journal’s review, here. Jacqui did her characteristically great job of describing the book. In fact, on this occasion I made the mistake of rereading her review before starting mine and found myself without actually that much to say since she rather seemed to have covered it all.
Some readers may notice that this wasn’t actually my next scheduled review. Basically I’ve just got too much of a review backlog currently and I’m reading books faster than I’m writing about them. Later in the year there should be slower periods while I’m reading big books like the next Proust, so my plan is to skip a couple of reviews now and hopefully come back to them later.
The books I’m skipping for the moment are Hawthorn and Child, which is excellent, and A Girl is a Half-formed Thing which is fascinating though I’m slightly less enamoured of it than many others are. Both absolutely merit a review, but both are already very widely reviewed so it’s not like people are struggling to get views on them.