A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

12RoseStreetThis recommendation comes from Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan.

It is July and, though I am very late in the month, July gives me the opportunity to recommend a book I read in the last year that I believe the late Maxine Clarke would have enjoyed. Last year Margot Kinberg from the terrific Confessions of a Mystery Novelist and I wanted to keep the Petrona Remembered blog fresh with new book reviews. We invited bloggers to nominate a book they think Maxine would have enjoyed. A selection of fine books were recommended over the year.

Last July I recommended a thriller, The Ascendant by Drew Chapman. This July I look to a book, 12 Rose Street, from one of my favourite authors, Gail Bowen. That the book is set in Saskatchewan only 300 km south of me is an added bonus.

While Maxine prized good writing she appreciated a book that looked to address a contemporary issue. 12 Rose Street is focused on a municipal election for mayor featuring a progressive candidate, Joanne’s husband, versus an establishment man, Scott Ridgeway. It also challenges the assumptions of the financially comfortable who want to help the least advantaged.

I am confident Maxine would have enjoyed the newest book in the Joanne Kilbourn series because she enjoyed the first three books in the series. She described the first, Deadly Appearances, as engaging. After reading the third book she planned to read more of the series.

Writing this post reminds me how much I miss Maxine.

My review is:

12 Rose Street by Gail Bowen

Joanne Kilbourn returns to her political roots in the 15th book of the series. Her husband, Zack Shreeve, is running for mayor of Regina and is in an uphill battle against the incumbent mayor, Scott Ridgeway, a favourite of the developers and business community.

In the first book of the series Joanne had been at a summer political rally for Andy Boychuk, a former Premier of Saskatchewan, when he was poisoned. Her deceased husband had been a cabinet minister. While the provincial party is never exactly stated Joanne is well left of centre in her politics. She had been an eager and active participant in provincial politics including elections.

Now Zack has chosen her to be his campaign manager and she is savouring the chance to challenge the conservative establishment a generation after Boychuk’s death.

In an effort to build momentum a slate of “progressive” candidates for City Council has been assembled. Leading this group is Brock Poitras, the aboriginal gay former Saskatchewan Roughrider player (Canadian football), who has been working with Zack on community development.

Joanne draws in her old political mentor and ex-Premier, Howard Dowhanuik. Long retired and living a quiet life Howard is energized by being involved again in an election.

The campaign is fiercely contested. It turns nasty as the book opens with a threat of child abduction at a social event for Zack’s campaign. The information comes from an unlikely source. Cronus, a former criminal client of Zack, is a slumlord operating by the principle of “maximum income, minimum maintenance”. He is also fond of rough sex with consensual partners.

Joanne pleads with Cronus to do anything he can to prevent an abduction. He sends a text message to an unknown recipient from his phone. It is composed of a few numbers and an attached photo of himself standing between Zack and Brock. No child is taken.

A couple of days later Cronus is brutally murdered. In her usual quiet way Joanne tries to figure out what happened.

As the bitter campaign continues attack ads are run on T.V. against Zack. They feature Zack and former criminal clients who were acquitted at trial and then committed further crimes. (For American readers think of Michael Dukakis and Willie Horton.)

Joanne knows Zack cannot maintain a lofty indifference to the attacks. With the aid of a skilled hired political operative she counter-attacks. Joanne has an aggressive aspect to her personality seldom seen in the series. She is fierce in defending Zack and embraces going on the offensive.

As a part of the campaign battles Joanne and her family face a stunning revelation that left me shocked for a moment. It is credible and leaves them reeling. How Joanne copes shows the depths of her character. Few authors can bring forward a compelling personal story 15 books into the series that deeply affects each of the major characters and how they view their lives over the past 25 years.

While Joanne is deeply involved in the election there is time in the story, as in real life, for personal life. One of her best friends is coping with the death of a daughter at 38 from pancreatic cancer.

I always admire how Gail works into every book a development in the lives of Joanne’s family that shows how children and grandchildren are maturing in their lives. In 12 Rose Street it is Joanne’s step-daughter Taylor, approaching 16, who has begun a dating relationship with 18 year old Declan. Gail delicately handles the emotions of first love.

12 Rose Street does focus on Joanne. The previous book, The Gifted, concentrated on the artistically gifted Taylor. This book is about Joanne with Zack having a major role.

Adding to the story are social issues. Few mysteries address the dynamics of the interactions between the well intentioned well-to-do (Joanne and Zack) and the desperately poor and struggling residents of a rough neighbourhood.

12 Rose Street is a good mystery with a striking personal revelation and a challenging look at important social issues. Last, but not least the election has set up further story lines for future books. Joanne Kilbourn is never going to spend her retirement sitting at home in her rocking chair. The series remains strong.

A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

Wolf WinterThis recommendation comes from Crimeworm, who blogs at Crimeworm

Introduction:

It’s obviously incredibly difficult to recommend a novel to someone you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting – particularly someone as influential, knowledgeable and, of course, loved as Maxine was. From what I know of her, which isn’t a great deal, she was fanatical about Nordic/Scandi Noir – call it what you will. That’s when Wolf Winter sprang to mind. It is a Swedish mystery – but set way back in 1717. I hope, were Maxine here to read the book, she would it enjoy it as much as I and many other bloggers did.

Anyway, here’s my thoughts on Cecilia Ekback’s Wolf Winter.

Wolf Winter is the debut novel by Cecilia Ekbäck, whose family originates, not surprisingly, from the north of Sweden and Lapland. This doubtless accounts for the novel’s hugely strong sense of atmosphere and place, and makes it the unique book that it is. The phrase also refers to the longest and hardest times in a person’s life – so, for our main characters, it is certainly an appropriate title!

It’s set in 1717, and is the story of a family: father Paavo, mother Maija, and daughters Frederika, 14, and Dorotea, 6, who move to a settlement on Blackåsen mountain in a “swap” deal with Paavo’s uncle (mainly arranged because Paavo has developed a phobia of his work on the sea as a fisherman), from the seas of Finland to the mountains of Sweden. So they arrive at their new settlement on the side of the remote mountain, where there are only six households, not including the Lapps, who only come down to the mountain in winter from higher ground. Life is very tough, and really seems to consist of survival for the families.  Obviously, as it’s so far north, in summer it’s almost completely light, and in winter the opposite.

At the very opening of the book, just three days after arriving on the mountain, Frederika and Dorotea come across the dead body of a man in a glade. Their mother fetches other residents of the mountain, none of whom she’s yet met, who dismiss the death as a wolf attack. But Maija knows wolf don’t attack humans, and even if they did, the wound wouldn’t resemble that inflicted on Eriksson, which she believes was caused by a rapier. The other settlers would also know this. She believes Eriksson was murdered, but knows that the pool of suspects on the mountain is obviously small, and that she, as a newcomer and a woman, is not in a position to publicly disagree with the longer established male settlers. So she does her best to gather more evidence (a little of which she manages to do at an examination of the body, requested by Elin, the dead man’s widow, and also attended by the priest.) Thereafter, she watches and waits, taking in all she can regarding relationships between the settlers, past disputes, etc, hoping to find out the truth behind Eriksson’s demise. Meanwhile, before winter starts, Paavo decides it would be prudent to travel south to gain employment, and leaves his wife and daughters to run the smallholding – although to me, this merely seems a plot device to allow Maija to take centre stage.

Frederika, the oldest daughter, seems to have some kind of supernatural powers, which are recognised by Fearless, one of the Lapps. She is also on a quest to find out what happened to Eriksson, although she and her mother seem the only ones concerned, as was apparently an unpopular man who liked to discover people’s secrets and use them for his own gain. Almost everyone, it seemed, was on remote Blackåsen mountain to hide away and conceal secrets – and in the course of Maija and Frederika’s respective investigations, many such secrets people would prefer to keep to themselves come tumbling out. And I can promise you, some will certainly surprise you. Other secrets are revealed when people take trips to the coast and “make enquiries” about their neighbours .

Wolf Winter is a novel most of which I really enjoyed, although I did put it down for a week or two at one point as it seemed to lose momentum slightly. About halfway through, though, the story picked up considerably, mainly with Frederika’s attempts to use supernatural powers she feels she may have, and with the secrets of the various settlers being revealed – some innocuous, others the hiding of which you can certainly understand.

Where Ekbäck really excels, though, is in her description of the weather – to me, it beggared belief that people were able to survive in these circumstances, never mind live self-sufficiently! One description of a storm is so evocative, you can almost feel the wind blowing the windows in. The nature of the area; its animals, and particularly its plants, is another area where you can tell she’s done her research.

I really liked Maija – she was a tough, resourceful woman who got on with what had to be done, without complaint, although there were a few points in the book where it was clear she wondered what they’d let themselves in for by moving somewhere so isolated and demanding. Paavo, to be honest, we barely got to know, although it was apparent that, of the couple, Maija was definitely the stronger one. However, their relationship was without doubt rock solid – despite receiving no letters from him throughout the winter (we learn of the reason why) she has faith he will return.

Frederika was equally likeable – sweetly protective of her little sister, she initially rejected any sign of any kind of “power”, before doing her best to use it – not for her own benefit, but to see justice done and protect her family. The justice that she sees done, though, may not be for the crime she’d initially hoped…

I’d really recommend Wolf Winter as a perfect winter read (although I may be a tad late for this winter!) It would also probably please the many fans of Nordic Noir, containing as it does murder and mystery at its heart. Also, if you enjoy books with a supernatural element, this would also be just the ticket for you.

A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

The Shut EyeThis recommendation comes from FictionFan, who blogs at FictionFan’s Book Reviews.  

Although I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Maxine, any reader who visits Amazon UK regularly is bound to be familiar with her reviews. It’s a testimony to the quality and popularity of her reviews that even now her profile is still listed amongst the ‘Top Reviewers’. Maxine reviewed Belinda Bauer’s debut novel ‘Blacklands’ and said “I loved the book, though it is not a “crime” novel in the usual sense…Overwhelmingly, though, I admire the achievement of the author for this well-constructed, observant and insightful book, not least because it is her first novel.” I’m sure she would have enjoyed Bauer’s latest book just as much.

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer

Little Daniel Buck ran out of his house one morning four months ago and has never been seen since. Edie Evans was older when she went missing several months earlier, nearly a teenager, but the signs are even more sinister in her case, since blood was found beside her broken and abandoned bicycle. Edie’s case still haunts DCI John Marvel, especially since he has convinced himself that she is still alive. In fact, so desperate had he become that he even put aside all his disbelief and cynicism and consulted a psychic. But to no avail, and the case is now officially classed as ‘cold’. But when Marvel begins to suspect a tenuous link between the two very different disappearances, he’s willing to clutch at any straw to have it reopened…

Belinda Bauer has the rare talent amongst crime writers of achieving a near perfect balance of light and shade, so that her books are always hugely entertaining even when they are addressing some pretty grim and disturbing subjects. In this book, she does this in two ways. Her third person multiple-viewpoint narration provides a tiny bit of distance between the reader and her characters, allowing her to show the emotional turmoil of losing a child without forcing the reader to spend too much time inside the bleakness of the parents’ minds. She is also a mistress of the art of injecting little bits of black humour at just the right places to lift the tone without destroying the tension. Her humour is so black and so subtle, in fact, that it often feels as if it comes direct from the reader’s mind rather than the author’s pen, which is brilliantly disconcerting.

There are three main viewpoints in the book. James, Daniel’s father, is riddled with guilt because he left open the door allowing Daniel to run off. But he’s just about holding it together, providing strength and support for his distraught wife, Anna. James works in the garage across the road from his home and it was there that the last signs of Daniel were seen – his little footprints embedded in the wet cement of the new forecourt. The garage is staffed mainly by immigrants, legal and illegal, while James’ boss is an unscrupulous bully. But this all-male environment gives James a kind of emotional support that helps him face things at home.

Anna is falling apart – she rarely leaves the house except to clean and polish the footprints to stop them from being worn away. Anna’s story is the grimmest strand in the book – Bauer shows us the agony and guilt felt by a mother who loses her child, and when we first meet Anna we learn how close she is to complete despair and mental breakdown. But one day a flyer is put through her door for a spiritualist meeting and she is tempted to try to find out once and for all if Daniel has died.

The third viewpoint is DCI Marvel and it’s in the sections relating to him that Bauer employs her humour. Marvel is a good cop, driven to succeed, but with little empathy for either the victims or his colleagues. Usually he sees each case as a competition between himself and the killer, but something about Edie has found his soft centre – maybe because she wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up, and this reminds him of his own boyhood dream. So when the Superintendent pulls him off a murder case to carry out what he sees as a trivial investigation, he’s at first outraged but then decides to use it as leverage to force the Superintendent to reopen Edie’s case. We also get to see Marvel’s home life, and his relationship with his put-upon partner Debbie, which nicely rounds him out as a character. He loves Debbie but he clearly doesn’t understand why she gets so frustrated with his behaviour. What’s so odd about looking over autopsy pictures during dinner anyway?

There is a supernatural element to the book surrounding the spiritual church and the psychic involved in looking for Edie. Normally that would destroy the credibility of any book for me, but Bauer’s writing is of such high quality that she carried me along and I was happy to suspend my disbelief. Marvel, too, is a cynic about such things and his down-to-earth scepticism prevents this aspect of the plot from becoming too fanciful.

Another excellent outing from Belinda Bauer, who seems to grow in skill and confidence with every book. Recently she has been producing standalones, as this is, but I would be one delighted reader if she decided to bring DCI Marvel back for another case at some point – he’s the kind of character who’s fun to spend time with… complex, frustrating, sometimes unfeeling, but also amusing and likeable, and with a good heart. I may have to start a petition…

A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

ecThis recommendation comes from Rebecca Bradley, who blogs at Rebecca Bradley Crime 

Eye Contact by Fergus McNeill

If you look him in the eye, you’re dead.

From the outside, Robert Naysmith is a successful businessman, handsome and charming. But for years he’s been playing a deadly game.

He doesn’t choose his victims. Each is selected at random – the first person to make eye contact after he begins ‘the game’ will not have long to live. Their fate is sealed.

When the body of a young woman is found on Severn Beach, Detective Inspector Harland is assigned the case. It’s only when he links it to an unsolved murder in Oxford that the police begin to guess at the awful scale of the crimes.

But how do you find a killer who strikes without motive?

My Thoughts: 

This is a very clever novel that manages to drag you in and hold you hostage as Robert Naysmith plays his ‘game’. The game being that when he decides to start the clock, the first person who looks him in the eye will be the person he kills. But, that person has 24 hours to live first as Naysmith likes the hunt: to find the person again after 24 hours have passed, with the person being hunted completely unknowing.

Naysmith is a clever articulate man. He holds down a whole other life: a great job and a home with a beautiful partner whom McNeill manages to show you the intricacies of Naysmith’s emotional checks and balances as he maintains this relationship and how this itself plays out.

There’s also Detective Inspector Harland who is struggling with his own loss while hunting Naysmith. And though there are chapters with Harland in them and the police in general making an attempt to capture this killer, this is not a police procedural by any means. In fact the police aspect takes a back seat most of the time.

The whole book is hypnotising. It’s the only way I can describe it. I had to keep turning the pages because the language used and human frailty captured was just riveting. I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next novel by McNeill.

A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

Wreath for the BrideThis recommendation comes from Moira R., who blogs at Clothes in Books.

A Wreath for the Bride by Maria Lang

I love the idea of remembering Maxine this way: recommending a book that we think she would have liked. I didn’t know her long or well before she died, but she had already shown her generosity to me, welcoming me into the world of blogging and making her thoughtful and perceptive comments at Clothes in Books. She wanted to share her great ideas and great finds with the rest of us, and she hoped we’d do the same back for her – so what better way to commemorate her than to carry on that tradition.

The book I have chosen is A Wreath for the Bride by Maria Lang. It was first published in Sweden in 1960, and has recently been republished in English (my translation is credited only to the publishers, Hodder and Stoughton) – probably because a Swedish TV show has been made from her books, and was recently shown on the BBC under the name Crimes of Passion.

Maria Lang (1914-1991) wrote 42 detective stories: she was ‘the first queen of Swedish crime fiction.’ She was often compared to Agatha Christie – usually these comparisons make me sigh (you wonder if the people making the comparisons have actually read any Christie) but based on this book, it’s not so unreasonable.

The book has a very strong sense of place – but it couldn’t be further from the hard-boiled, noirish books many of us now associate with Scandi-fiction. It’s set in a small village, Stroga, where everyone knows each other. Everyone gossips and has an opinion on others’ affairs. You can’t walk down the street without being seen and noticed.

Or can you?

‘Anneli is wearing virginal (but not bridal) white when she disappears. This image from the Clover Vintage tumblr’ (http://clover-vintage.tumblr.com/post/79109082830/1956-la-femme-chic)

‘Anneli is wearing virginal (but not bridal) white when she disappears. This image from the Clover Vintage tumblr’

Anneli, young and beautiful, is about to marry rich eligible Joachim. She is chatting with her friend Dina in the main street, then dives into the florist’s shop – her fiancé has asked her to look at her bouquet, which he has chosen. Dina waits outside for her, chats to some locals. It starts raining, and she can wait no longer. So she goes into the flower shop – and is told by the owner that Anneli has never been there. She has vanished into thin air. She does not re-appear in time for the wedding, which has to be called off, though everyone goes for the meal in the hotel anyway.  A few days later a body is discovered.

So what did happen to her? What are the undercurrents in peaceful Skoga? Luckily, Chief Inspector Christer Wick is visiting from Stockholm – he has come for the wedding, as he grew up in Skoga and his mother still lives there. He investigates the crime, and also takes a great interest in the delightful and pretty Dina, Anneli’s devastated friend. In the end he finds the solution, and expounds the full explanation to the gathered townspeople in true Christie fashion. In a very Christie-like manner, there have been all kinds of different things going on, and the explanation is very complex. My only criticism is that if something very odd and inexplicable has happened –  but it turns out that it didn’t happen, someone was just lying – then that’s not much of an illusion. But that’s a bit picky.

The atmosphere is beautifully done: the old-fashioned shops in the street, giving onto a yard, the old lady who sits outside watching what goes on. The action takes place in the high summer, and I love the fact that one character goes out at 3 o’clock in the morning and finds it is

‘…wonderful out— the sun out and the birds singing away at full blast.’

Quite a lot of people are out and about in this midnight sun, so very un-English and beautifully described.

I watched the TV version of this one, which was enchanting, with gorgeous scenery, 1960 clothes, and Swedish houses to look at. It was somewhat expanded from the book, but true to the spirit, I thought, and great fun to watch.

The English title of the book is misleading: The bride’s flowers are very important, but it is her bouquet, not her head-dress, that matters so much. The Swedish title translates as the King of the Lily of the Valley, and refers to a poem which various characters quote, and indeed lilies-of-the-valley are of great importance (there is a song based on the poem, which you can hear on YouTube).

As we all know, Maxine loved her Scandi-fiction, and the books she read were often harsher and more contemporary than this one. But I think she would have liked A Wreath for the Bride: to see where it fits in the history of Swedish crime fiction, because of its great sense of place, and because it is engaging, but also haunting – it has a darker sadder side. It is the ideal short sharp read.

*Clover Vintage Tumblr

A Great Crime Novel Recommendation

The Burning AirThis recommendation comes from Cleo, who blogs at Cleopatra Loves Books

When I originally signed up to recommend a novel to Maxine I foolishly thought the task would be easy, I’ve read loads of crime fiction and give people recommendations on what to try frequently enough that the names of those authors trip off my tongue. Giving a recommendation to someone who was as well read as Maxine was tough, so I concentrated on the aspect of crime fiction writing she found most appealing, those that covered a social issue, a political idea or troubling aspect of the human condition. I believe I found the perfect book . My choice definitely covers two of these, with a hint of the other, and it is one of my favourite crime reads of all time

The Burning Air by Erin Kelly

Lydia opens her diary, picks up her pen and prepares to commit her sins to its pages. Overwhelmed by her illness she finishes her entry stating ‘A good mother loves fiercely but ultimately brings up her children to thrive without her. They must be the most important thing in her life, but if she is the most important thing in theirs, she has failed.’ These words underpin the rest of one of the darkest stories I have read.

Lydia and Rowan McBride had a successful life, Rowan a headmaster at a prestigious private school and Lydia a magistrate with altruistic nature. Their three children Sophie, Tara and Felix grew up with all the benefits this background afforded them, attending their father’s school. Lydia’s husband Rowan, her adult children Sophie, Tara and Felix gather together along with an assortment of partners and offspring over a cold November weekend to scatter her ashes at Far Barn, the scene of many happy family holidays. Without a television or mobile signal and only a tape deck and record player for music, being at Far Barn is like going back in time. And so the scene is set for a claustrophobic weekend where the consequences of the past make themselves known. When Felix’s new girlfriend disappears with Sophie’s baby on bonfire night the secrets of the past come tumbling out with each character having a part to play in this well-crafted story.

So where, you might ask, are those aspects so beloved by Maxine? Well, this is a book about obsession which sparks acts of violent revenge, a human condition which left unchecked can cause utter devastation as this novel demonstrates. The cause of the vengeance is someone who believes the family were responsible for a bright, intelligent child from a mixed-up background missing out on the chance of attending the private school, the one that the younger McBrides attended because their father was headmaster. This single event sparked an obsession with the McBride family that lasted many years, the pursuit of revenge having a corrosive effect on all who stepped into its path.

This is a fascinating look at some views about private education: does it provide an advantage regardless of the ability of the child attending? Likewise the converse, if a child is intelligent would they thrive in any educational facility? What does a private school offer children of all abilities that aren’t available in the state system? Or is it perhaps a little more complex than any of those questions? Isn’t it a social as well as a political issue that an education that can be bought is more desirable than the one that the vast majority of children attend?

In many ways The Burning Air is a book about moral issues with degrees of guilt and innocence being far more important, certainly in the background to this story, than the absolutes of right and wrong. I prefer my reading matter not to be black and white and so I think this book will be interpreted in a variety of ways depending on how morally responsible the reader holds the perpetrator.

As I hope you can see, there is plenty to think about in this novel but just for avoidance of doubt, it is also a great read, with plenty of twists and turns which I have done my level best to avoid spoiling whilst writing this recommendation post for Petrona Remembered.

A Great Crime Novel Recomendation

GameForFiveThis recommendation comes from Jacqui, who blogs at JaquiWine’s Journal

Game for Five by Marco Malvaldi (tr. by Howard Curtis)

This post is my contribution to Petrona Remembered, a blog dedicated to honouring the memory of Maxine Clarke.

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.

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.

Game for Five is published in the UK by Europa Editions.