Three-Card Monte, by Marco Malvaldi and translated by Howard Curtis
I read Marco Malvaldi’s Game for Five while feeling a bit under the weather during Christmas 2015. Fast forward a year and I was again feeling a bit under the weather, now at Christmas 2016, and once again Malvaldi seemed a good bet.
There’s always a difficulty converting a successful crime novel into a series. Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, his first featuring Inspector Rebus, sits a bit oddly with what follows with Rebus having a taste for jazz rather than classic rock and hints in the narrative that he might himself be the killer. That made sense when that was the only novel he appeared in, but not so much now he’s in 20 or more.
I’ve no idea whether Game for Five was originally intended as part of a series or not. It stands on its own very well. It became one though, with seven novels so far of which two have been translated into English (there’s also an Italian TV series which I suspect would be rather fun).
Game for Five shone best with its memorable characters: Massimo, a barman with his own bar in a small Italian town not far from Pisa; his four octogenarian regulars (I’ve seen men like them passing the time outside countless Italian bars over the years); and Tiziana his bright and decidedly attractive barmaid. They’re a good bunch and there’s great chat between them.
Three-Card Monte opens with a prologue in which a Japanese academic arrives in Italy for a conference in Massimo’s town. It establishes some of the incidental characters who’ll appear in this novel, but mostly allows Malvaldi some mild comic reflections on academic conferences and Italian airports. The action proper starts back at the bar, where Massimo has just installed wifi only to find that the only table where it works reliably is the one the four old-timers have long claimed as their own. He needs them to move, but they’ve always sat there and besides it’s the only table with reliable shade…
Some crime novels are about the crime. Some only have a crime to give the characters something to do. The Bar Lume novels are firmly in that second category. The fun here is Massimo’s gentle feuds with his best and certainly oldest customers, Tiziana’s attempts to referee between them and perhaps to update the bar’s decor to something a little more modern, and Malvaldi’s asides on Italian life.
Massimo’s busier than usual due to that academic conference I mentioned. One of the regulars, Aldo, owns a restaurant and landed the catering contract and he and Massimo are laying on food and coffee to the endlessly hungry and thirsty delegates. That puts Massimo at the scene when a delegate is, very probably, murdered. At any rate he’s definitely dead.
In the first novel Massimo is the intelligent amateur and he largely has to force his way into the investigation when he sees local police officer Inspector Fusco messing it up. This time Inspector Fusco quickly brings Massimo on board realising he needs all the help he can get:
“To sum up the situation, I’m faced with the need to question a large number of people who are potential witnesses. Most of these people will leave the conference and Italy on Saturday, which means that I have three days to question them, because there’s no way I can put two hundred people in custody, let alone force them to stay in the country. Once everyone has been questioned, I should ideally be able to establish what happened and, if there has indeed been a crime, to identify the culprit and make an arrest.”
The narrative flows along neatly enough, but the background to the crime which involves advanced computer models and rivalry in biomolecular chemistry didn’t do a lot for me. Like Hammett I prefer my crime to come out of more recognisable motives than are at play here.
The incidental characters mostly work pretty well. There’s a likable young Japanese chemist named Koichi Kawaguchi that I’d happily have seen more of, and the distinguished if appallingly badly dressed Dutch professor Antonius Snijders who speaks grammatically perfect but heavily accented Italian and who helps Massimo get up to speed with the academic infighting. The rest are pretty forgettable, but it’s not a long book and I imagine Malvaldi didn’t want it to get too crowded.
The solution to the crime is unobtrusively signposted in quite an old-school way. Malvaldi puts the clues in the text and then distracts you from them in classic crime fiction manner, but I’m not a huge fan of mysteries where an intuitive leap and unexpected accusation elicit a convenient confession. Perhaps though that’s like complaining an SF novel features aliens. Some things come with the genre.
More problematically, there were a couple of times the language felt a bit pedestrian (a character smiles with “all thirty-two teeth” on two separate occasions, and since it’s not a common English phrase it rather stood out to me). Generally I’d say that the focus just didn’t feel as tight as with the first novel.
If I operated a star system Game for Five would have scored a comfortable four stars. Three-Card Monte is more a rather average three. It’s not bad, but it’s not as good as the first. I’ll probably try another Bar Lume if more are translated, but if there isn’t a return to form I doubt I’d continue from there.
If, however, you’re in the mood for a gentle crime novel with likeable characters who largely care about each other you could do an awful lot worse. It’s a good choice for when you’re ill or for when you need something not too demanding while on a plane or the beach.
None in the blogosphere that I know of, but always happy to be corrected in the comments. I did find this review at Shiny New Books which some might find interesting and which is a bit more positive than mine.