Three-Card Monte by Marco Malvaldi

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Translated by Howard Curtis

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

three card monte malvaldi

I knew nothing of this author, but enjoyed this light, untroubling murder mystery set in the coastal town of Pineta in Italy.  Its main character – neither hero or detective – is Massimo, owner of the Bar Lume, who is a latecomer to keeping a bar, having given up his mathematical doctorate when he won a modest share in a lottery jackpot.  It is the second in a planned trilogy – the first was Game for Five.  It is detection by accident and charm, with a degree of Italian insouciance thrown in – there is no blood and guts, no scientific analysis, no deep psychologising – just a young man trying to run a bar and a catering business, coping with his elderly regulars who don’t know what wi-fi is but occupy the only table where you can get a signal (keeping away young tourists), and his attractive assistant Tiziana who wants to modernise and redecorate around him.

The book is written with charm and an understated humour, and there is much flavour imparted by the minutiae of daily life in Italy and Massimo’s efforts to keep the bar running and the old men happy.  Into this pleasant chaos comes the Twelfth International Workshop on Macromolecular and Biomacromolecular Chemistry, bringing with it, among others, an elderly Japanese academic and an eccentric Dutch one (who gave the impression “not so much that he had dressed of his own free will as that he had been assaulted by his own clothes”).  Massimo is doing the catering for the conference, and is not particularly surprised when the elderly Japanese – one of a numerous contingent from Japan – is found dead.  But he is surprised when the incompetent and under-resourced local police force calls him in for questioning because the man had been murdered.

He tries not to get involved, but is drawn in through his knowledge of computers – and a forensic analysis of the dead man’s hard drive which is always left a little vague – until the culprit is identified.  But looming larger in his life are important domestic questions – taking his grandfather to the Post Office (and forgetting him there), finding his car blocked by a lazily parked moped (and taking an attractive and very Italian revenge), and the vexed question of making his wi-fi work.

This is meant to be – and definitely succeeds in being – a light, pleasant entertainment.  At times, however, it can be just a bit too vague, and very occasionally the faux simplicity of description can be confusing or even perverse:

…the priest has closed the computer screen and sat down at the attractive girl’s table.  The girl’s name is Tiziana and she’s been working at the Bar Lume for two or three years as a maid of all work.  The aforementioned Bar Lume is owned by Massimo, who corresponds physically to both the priest and Ampelio’s grandson.  In other words, the man who has sat down is called Massimo, and he’s the barman.

Eh? What on earth does this mean?  But equally, there are other delightfully amusing passages.  Here’s Tiziana working Massimo round to letting her redecorate:

Anyway, I was thinking it wouldn’t be a bad thing to freshen it up a bit. Paint a couple of walls a nice color, maybe with a sponging effect or something like that.  Put up some nice reproductions or nice photographs, put some nice curtains on the windows. Something to make the place a bit more cheerful.  Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t mean it’s dirty or badly maintained, but on a day like today anyone coming in would look at the place, see the old codgers, and wonder what time the funeral starts.

By nice reproductions, she means “something like Mapplethorpe”, and she proposes to throw away all his favourite decorations.  He thinks “Help.  I’ve unleashed a monster”, but lets her do it anyway.

I haven’t talked very much about the plot or the solution, because that really isn’t the most important theme in this short book, although it is the thread that holds it all together.  This is a light, entertaining mystery with no pain and no blood, plenty of humour, and a generous smattering of whimsical italiana.  Espresso with a shot of Sassolino? Enjoy!

Terence Jagger has solved many a murder from his armchair, but none from a bar.

Marco Malvaldi,  Three-Card Monte (Europa Editions (World Noir) New York 2014) ISBN 978-1-60945-205-6  168pp, paperback, £9.99.

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