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Crime Fiction Lover: "Cynical and witty."

Date: Oct 21 2014

Written by Marco Malvaldi, translated by Howard Curtis – Three-Card Monte is the second instalment in the Bar Lume series, (we reviewed Game For Five here) which are bestsellers in the author’s native Italy. Set in a small coastal town in Tuscany, the book once again features Massimo – a barman and amateur sleuth – and a gaggle of hilarious old timers. Between espresso, and lively card games, Massimo and his cohorts while away the time chatting and arguing, but nothing sets their tongues a-wagging more than an unsolved crime.

The Twelfth International Workshop on Macromolecular and Biomacromolecular Chemistry – “What a waste of capital letters,” one character comments – has descended upon the small coastal town of Pineta in Northern Italy. Massimo and Aldo, one of the curmudgeonly pensioners, are to provide catering during its coffee and lunch breaks. Much excitement and speculation ensues when an esteemed Japanese professor dies under mysterious circumstances – it is quickly deemed a homicide.

Massimo reluctantly reprises his role as an amateur detective when summoned by the marvellously ineffectual Inspector Fusco to aid the investigation. With the conference ending in three days, with all delegates heading back to their native countries, there is little time to catch the killer. But fear not. Within the safety of their favourite watering hole, Massimo and his aged band of speculators have their own theories and serendipitous insights into the murder and who is culpable.

From the opening chapter Malvaldi instantly draws us back into his cynical and witty writing style that so impressed in the first book. Koichi Kawaguchi is seen as nervous, apprehensive of Italy’s chaos and of attending the conference. He ponders the travails of the days ahead. Meanwhile, Massimo is blighted by the installation of WiFi in Bar Lume – it only works at one table, under a tree, which is invariably occupied by his stubborn, elderly cohorts. There’s a less than serious tone to this murder mystery, but it’s one that will entertain and delight in equal measure. Malvaldi’s attention to characterisation is superb throughout, as you find yourself, like Massimo, exasperated by his unruly pensioners but thoroughly entertained by their non-PC observations, saucy humour, and scathing complaints about their friends and neighbours.

In common with Andrea Camilleri and Marco Vichi, the inherent wit of the book is tempered by an intriguing murder mystery. Malvaldi has constructed a neat and engaging crime plot, nicely peppered with scientific geekery. It illustrates perfectly the competitive professional rivalries that exist in the scientific professions, and the race to make that one great discovery, and how far others will go to thwart this. The level of detail that Malvaldi insinuates into the plot adds to the overall enjoyment of the mystery, lending a credible feel to the whole affair.

Malvaldi has quickly established himself as a real favourite of mine, not only with this series but also with his perfect little stand alone The Art of Killing Well, which we’ve also reviewed. His fluid and engaging prose with its perfectly placed vignettes of humour is totally entertaining, but yet sates the thirst of those craving a tricksy and puzzling murder mystery. An absolute gem.

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