Game for Five by Marco Malvaldi

Earlier this year I read (and loved) Marco Malvaldi’s The Art of Killing Well, a delightfully playful and witty mystery set in the Tuscan countryside in 1895, published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Malvaldi has also written the Bar Lume mysteries set in present-day Italy, and Game for Five (published by Europa Editions, World Noir) is the first novella in this series.

Game for Five takes us to Pineta, a fashionable seaside resort near Pisa. Here we meet Massimo, long-suffering owner of the Bar Lume and unofficial guardian to four old-timers in their 70s and 80s who spend their days winding one another up and playing cards at the venue.

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One of the most delightful aspects of this novella stems from Malvaldi’s descriptions of the characters and the banter between the main players. At an early stage in the story, we are introduced to the four elderly gentlemen, each of whom has his own individual habits and mannerisms. Ampelio, who also happens to be Massimo’s grandpa, is like a child who has escaped from the watchful eye of his mother, always on the lookout for ice cream and unsuitable drinks – unsuitable for both the sweltering heat, and his state of health. In this scene, we get a sense of the other characters and their activities at the bar:

The first to open his mouth is retired postal worker Gino Rimediotti, who looks all of his seventy-five years, and who now says, as he usually does, “I’m fine with anything. As long as I don’t play in a pair with him there.”

“Listen to him! As if it’s always my fault…”

“Yes, it is your fault! You never remember what cards have been dealt even if they bite you.”

“Gino, listen, I’m fond of you, but someone who winks like he’s swallowed gravel the way you do should just keep still, OK? When you’re dealt a three anyone would think you’re having a heart attack. Even the people inside the bar know what cards you have.”

The name of the fourth man is Pilade Del Tacca. He has watched seventy-four springs glide pleasantly by and is happily overweight. Years of hard work at the town hall in Pineta, where if you don’t have breakfast four times in a morning you’re nobody, has formed both his physique and his character: apart from being ill-mannered, he’s also a pain in the butt. (pg. 24, Europa Editions)

Life in this small town is disturbed by news of a murder. Very early one morning, a local guy discovers the body of a young girl dumped in a parking-lot trash can by the side of a wood, and he stumbles into Bar Lume to raise the alarm. Having spent the night at the disco, the man is as drunk as they come, so Massimo accompanies him to the crime scene, confirms the presence of the body and calls the police. Into the fray comes the insufferable and bumbling Inspector Fusco, a man who Massimo and Dr. Carli, the police doctor in attendance, consider ‘prickly, arrogant, pig-headed, conceited and vain.

Game for Five is a hugely enjoyable book full of wry humour, and much of the story’s wit derives from the interactions between characters, especially those involving the inspector. Here he is interviewing Massimo about events on the night in question:

“Right, you live in the city. Simone Tonfoni, the person who found the body, maintains that he entered your bar at 5.10. Can you confirm that?”

“Yes.”

“After he entered, he says he phoned this station to report finding the body. The officer on duty at the switchboard thought it was a joke and hung up. Then…”

“Then I asked him to show me where the body was. We went to the parking lot, I saw the scene, went back to the bar and –”

“Please just answer my questions and don’t interrupt,” the inspector said calmly. “Did you phone the station at 5.20 A.M.?”

“Yes.”

“Did you go back to the parking lot immediately after the phone call?”

“Yes.”

“Was the scene of the crime exactly as it had been the first time?”

“Yes.”

“Did you wait for the police to arrive, without leaving the spot?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure about what you’re telling me?”

“Yes.”

“Is yes the only word you know?”

“No.” (pg. 42)

It’s not long before the old-timers at Bar Lume start gossiping about the murder, speculating – often rather wildly – on events and possible suspects. Nevertheless, Inspector Fusco could probably do a lot worse than pay a visit to the bar should he wish to get to the bottom of the case:

“You know the neat thing about this whole business, my dear Massimo? It’s that the town already knows more than the inspector. Firstly, because Fusco is a fool” – all those present nodded in unison – “and secondly, because if something happens in this town, to someone from the town, then someone else must know something about it. Maybe someone who saw something but doesn’t know what it meant. In my opinion, Massimo, Fusco should come to the bar and talk to all the people who drop in here, then go to see all the women in their homes, then go to the market, and so on. Nobody’ll go straight to him…” (pg. 39)

Due to his involvement in the discovery of the corpse, Massimo gets drawn into the investigation. He soon realises that Fusco has jumped on the obvious suspect – a young boy who had been seeing the victim – despite the absence of a clear motive or any evidence linking this individual to the crime scene. While Massimo longs for a quiet life and would prefer to leave matters to the authorities, the more information he uncovers, the more the case niggles away at him. Underneath Massimo’s slightly weathered exterior lurks a natural empathy for others, and he takes it upon himself to talk to those who knew the dead girl in an attempt to solve the crime. Aided and abetted, of course, by his grandpa and fellow frequenters of the Bar Lume.

Game for Five is great fun. It’s an enjoyable mystery, but what really elevate this book, making it such a delight to read, are the characterisation and different shades of humour Malvaldi brings to the narrative. As I mentioned earlier, each of the old-timers comes with his own individual idiosyncrasies and ways to infuriate to others (many of which are unconstrained by political correctness). Inspector Fusco is well-drawn, as is Dr. Carli, the police doctor. And as the novella progresses, Malvaldi reveals more of Massimo’s character adding depth to our image of the protagonist. The banter amongst the old-timers and their exchanges with Massimo are a joy: some scenes are pure comedy; others peppered with slightly sardonic wit. And the interactions between Massimo and the inept Inspector Fusco bristle with prickly humour.

All in all, Game for Five is a thoroughly enjoyable book. The mystery is resolved, but you’ll have to read the book to discover how much of a part Massimo plays in the outcome. My edition comes with an endorsement from Andrea Camilleri on the rear cover, and I can see Game for Five appealing to fans of the Inspector Montalbano series.

This post is my contribution to to Petrona Remembered, a blog dedicated to honouring the memory of blogger Maxine Clarke, a passionate advocate of crime fiction. You can read more about it by clicking on the link.

Game for Five is published in the UK by Europa Editions, tr. by Howard Curtis. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

27 thoughts on “Game for Five by Marco Malvaldi

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He’s a good author to get to get to know! Game for Five is fairly similar in style to Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels. I don’t know whether you’ve read any of those, but if you like Camilleri, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Game for Five.

      The other Malvaldi I’ve read — The Art of Killing Well — is closer to ‘Where There’s Love, There’s Hate’ and I know how much you enjoyed the Casares/Ocampo! The Art of Killing Well is another delightfully witty mystery in a country residence, but this one comes with a very likeable and sympathetic protagonist. Not that I’m trying to sell you any more books or anything… ;)

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    I love character studies. The variety when they are witty and funny are some of the most enjoyable.

    There is something about card games that bring out character in people, both in fiction and i real life.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This one’s great fun, Brian, and the old geezers are very endearing. It reminded me of holidays in Italy and those bars you find in sleepy Mediterranean towns where the old guys hang around all day playing cards and snoozing in the sun.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a very enjoyable book and a good change of tone in between the German novels I’ve been reading lately. As you say, it’s perfect fare for a television adaptation and that Saturday night slot. Massimo’s an engaging guy so I could see this franchise running for a while.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks for your kind words, John. It’s just one of those downright enjoyable reads and each individual character in the group comes with his own personality and traits. Massimo’s very engaging too, the kind of guy you root for.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I hope you enjoy this one, Guy. As ever, I’ll be interested to see how you find it.

      I must try a few more Europa titles, and the World Noir series looks right up my street. Which other Europas would you recommend? I still need to get to Carlotto’s The Goodbye Kiss.

      Reply
    1. realthog

      Why is it next to impossible to get translated literature in America?!

      This is something that’s maddening me, too. Jacqui and other Brit readers are constantly recommending fine translated books, and so many of them aren’t available here. The Book Depository used to be useful for getting hold of UK books at non-extortionate prices, but I gave up using them when Amazon took them over. It’s all most galling.

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        That’s such a shame, and I feel a little guilty for singing the praises of so many translated books if they’re difficult to come by on your side of the pond. I know others who have moved away from The Book Depository for the same reason you mentioned, John.

        Have you come across Wordery? As far as I can tell, they’re independent and offer free delivery worldwide. Their range is huge with several keenly-priced books in translation (including titles by Malvaldi and Pascal Garnier). You might want to take a look – I don’t have any affiliation with Wordery btw, but I’ve heard good things from a couple of friends who use them as their first port-of-call!

        https://wordery.com/

        Reply
        1. realthog

          Oh, oodles of thanks for this, Jacqui! I’ve just been onto the Wordery site and, to test it, did a search for Pascal Garnier . . . and got half a dozen titles. And their prices seem pretty reasonable. This is tremendous! All sorts of thanks.

          Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, if you like Camilleri’s Montalbano, Malvaldi’s Bar Lume series is worth a look (certainly on the appeal of this first book in the series).

      I hadn’t realised it was quite so difficult to get hold of translated lit in the US, but John (realthog) has mentioned it a few times now…that’s very frustrating.

      Reply
  2. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  3. Emma

    Sounds fun.
    ‘prickly, arrogant, pig-headed, conceited and vain.’ that’s a lot for one man :-)

    The card players remind me of the famous play by Marcel Pagnol, Marius where’s a cultissime scene with men playing cards in a bistro.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, great fun, and there’s enough in the way of character to maintain your interest. Sometimes you just need a lighter book.

      I’m not familiar with the play you’ve mentioned so I’ll have to take a look. It reminded me a little of holidays in Italy and those bars you find in sleepy Mediterranean towns where the old guys hang around all day playing cards.

      Reply
  4. Max Cairnduff

    It does sound great fun, as others have said, and very reminiscent of a lot of bars I’ve seen in Italy. I’ll second Guy’s appreciation for Europa too, they’re a very reliable publisher.

    I’d planned to get The Art of Killing Well, but I may bump this ahead of it. Choices, choices.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I enjoyed both of these Malvaldis. They differ somewhat in style though so it depends on what you fancy. Game for Five reminded me of Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels (I don’t know if you’ve read any of those?), the light-hearted humour alongside the darkness of the crime. The Art of Killing Well, on the other hand, is closer in style to that wonderful Bioy Casares/Ocampo novella, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate.

      Europa do a neat line in World Noir, don’t they? I have Massimo Carlotto’s The Goodbye Kiss in the pile, and I know it’s going to be a dark one.

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        The Goodbye Kiss is one of the darkest noirs I’ve ever read, possibly the darkest. I thought it very good. Apparently he wrote a sequel some years later, though from what I’ve heard it’s not a particularly necessary sequel.

        Carlotto also wrote a crime series, but sadly it appears not to have been translated, just his noir stuff.

        Reply
  5. Max Cairnduff

    Jacqui,

    I read this as an interruption to my #tbr20 just before the New Year. I was feeling a little under the weather and wanted something light and refreshing, and remembered your review. You’re quite right about it, it’s a delight. Huge fun. Thanks again for the review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Max. I’m so glad you enjoyed it (but sorry hear you were feeling a little under the weather) – it reminded me a little of Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series.

      Malvaldi’s other book — The Art of Killing Well — is worth considering at some point. In fact, I think it’s my favourite of the two I’ve read so far. It’s somewhat different to Game for Five (the setting is 19th-century Tuscany), but I think you can tell that was written by the same writer.

      Reply
  6. Pingback: Who was it who invented coffee? He must be a cousin of the genius who invented the bed. Nobel Prizes for both of them. For them, and for the person who invented Nutella. | Pechorin's Journal

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