Game for Five by Marco Malvaldi, translated by Howard Curtis

Game for Five
Marco Malvadi
Originally Published as La briscola in cinque in 2007
English translation published in 2014
Bar Lume #1
Followed by Three-Card Monte

I think most readers have experienced a reading rut at some time. There are times when the books themselves are to blame but I don’t think that was the case with me this time. I just felt picky and nothing seemed to be able to hold my attention. Fortunately Game for Five came along at just the right time and managed to pull me out of my reading funk.

The novel is the first in a series set around a bar in rural Italy. The mystery itself is not particularly complex and the investigation is rather superficial. It is however quite light and frothy with the occasional dark or bitter undertone, much like the cappuccinos our hero will refuse to sell most of his customers (it is too hot to run the coffee machine).

The story begins with a drunken student discovering the body of a young woman inside a bin. The bar happens to be nearby and so he uses the phone to call the police, alerting barman Massimo to what is going on.

His initial involvement in the story is to confirm some aspects of the case and to engage in gossip with elderly regulars, a group of four pensioners he plays cards with. He feels pulled into the case however when he speaks with the sister of the police’s suspect, a besotted boy she had arranged to meet but apparently stood up. He comes to believe that some of the details of the crime scene simply don’t tally with the investigator’s version of events and so he begins to ask some questions himself…

Massimo’s investigative style is somewhat relaxed, taking the form of chit-chat and gathering gossip rather than conducting interrogations or gathering hard evidence. That strikes me as appropriate given his profession and certainly I think it would be hard to make any other approach fit his character. It does mean however that the details of the investigation can feel a little hazy and some readers may feel that he never really proves his theory, rather he works to invalidate the alternatives. I wouldn’t personally go that far but I think that this may not be the best fit for those who read mysteries primarily for the puzzles.

Massimo’s bar is frequented by a group of retired men who form a sort of club, trading little gibes at each other and talking over parts of the case. They end up serving as a mixture of sounding board and Baker Street Irregulars, gathering gossip for him and helping him work through his ideas. I enjoyed the interactions they share and I thought that Malvaldi uses them well to provide us with some of the background concerning the victim and her lifestyle. In addition to serving the mystery plot, they also provide some moments of comedy as they make nuisances of themselves in his bar.

Malvaldi peppers his story with lots of literary references, commenting on the books Massimo is reading. This not only helps to establish his character, it can often be quite amusing and well-observed as we hear his musings on the likes of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. For instance, there is one glorious page where we get references to Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and The Bangles.

Given the lighthearted tone Malvaldi gives his story and its rural Italian setting you may wonder why the publisher describes the work as World Noir. Is it a piece of lazy labeling designed to help shift copies? Certainly a few Goodreads reviewers seem to think so.

I don’t think labels are all that important but if forced to make a ruling I would say that it lacks the stylistic touches and elements most would think of as noir but it does possess the attitude and outlook on human nature. It has moments of cynicism, albeit they are typically presented here for laughs. I would counsel you not to approach this expecting it to fit labels – Malvadi is really doing his own thing here and it is as much a light comedy and portrait of village life as it is a crime story.

Though I have suggested above that the mystery is quite slight in the way it is plotted, I should confess to being surprised by some elements of the conclusion in spite of the very small pool of suspects. I think the choice of killer was clever and while the motive is not particularly thrilling and a few parts of the resolution did not strike me as being fully clued (the evidence that will prove the case for instance), I thought it was a clever solution that did a good job of making sense of the situation.

It is, in my opinion, a fairly solid mystery, albeit one that lacks thrills but it is one I found highly entertaining. I really enjoyed the characters Malvaldi creates, particularly the group of regulars in the bar, and I think he captures some of the teasing and prodding that can build up among a group of friends who know each other well. I had little difficulty believing in that group of characters and I enjoyed their interactions enormously whether they were talking about the case or bickering about the foods their doctors allowed them to eat.

I certainly plan on returning to pick up the second in the series, the only other title so far to be published in English translation. It is a fun, fast read with entertaining characters. I liked the idea of setting a series around a bar and will be curious how future volumes manage to bring the action to Massimo.

Perhaps most important of all though, it broke me out of my reading funk. It was the book I needed at the time I needed it and since finishing it I feel I have some of my reading mojo back. For that I am immensely grateful.