Thursday, July 15, 2010

Badfellas, by Tonino Benacquista

Bitter Lemon Press
Original French title: Malavita, 2004
Translated by Emily Read

Cholong-sur-Avre in Normandy is the setting of this rather unconventional and darkly humorous tale.  The Blake family moves into an old Norman brick-and-stone villa during the middle of the night. They had already lived  in France for six years, first in Paris, then on the Cote D'Azur in Cagnes-sur-Mer. There's Fred, the head of the clan, Maggie his wife, and two teenagers, Belle and Warren.  Just your typical American family relocating to the French countryside, right? Wrong. Fred is actually Mafioso Giovanni Manzoni from New Jersey, and he and his family are in the witness protection program after he testifies against against another crime boss, Mimino.  Along with them are a team of FBI men, assigned to them for protection against anyone wanting to claim the huge bounty put on Manzoni's head by Mimino. All of they have to do is lay low, pretend to be a normal family and get on with their lives.  But for someone like Fred, or for the rest of the family for that matter, being normal in any sense of the word is impossible.

Benaquista's characters are well drawn. In this particular witness protection incarnation, Fred has decided to tout himself as an author writing about the landing at Normandy, while all the time writing his own memoirs about his life in organized crime.  Fred is not a likable person at all and has no redeeming qualities, but he does have principles:  he always takes responsibility for his actions, he wouldn't do anything different over his lifetime if he had it all to do again, and the word he hates most in the world is sorry. Maggie is busy with volunteer work, but hangs out with the FBI team to get the latest on her neighbors, who are under constant surveillance by the feds. Belle, the daughter, is one of those people who makes lemonade with the lemons life has handed her, and Warren has handled the witness protection situation by watching, learning and becoming the mini Godfather-figure of his school.

There are some truly funny moments in this book, especially the story of how a school magazine traveled from France to Thailand to Los Angeles to New York and started a particularly nasty chain of events. That whole little story within a story is laugh-out-loud funny. There's also a great scene where by mistake a local cinema club gets sent the Scorsese film Goodfellas instead of the scheduled program of Some Came Running, the story of a WWII veteran who returns home.  However, As much as I liked this book, I did have a couple of niggling and minor issues with it. First, I kept waiting for the "crime fiction" part to begin, but it never materialized. I might have labeled it more of a "dark comedy" -- there's no central mystery plotline, very little crime and it's really more of a look at the lives and fortunes of this Witness-Protected family while in exile and at times the people guarding them.  And this leads me to my second point: when a plumber meets up with an unfortunate incident at the Blake home, how is it that the FBI surveillance team overseeing the Blake family's every move knows nothing about it? And how is that Fred's nephew in the US is allowed to get a call from France when the family is virtually in lockdown?  There are a couple of places like this where the storyline falters a bit, creating distractions that really annoyed me at times.

If you're looking for a typical crime fiction novel, I wouldn't start with this one, but the book is actually quite good overall -- more of a fun read than a serious crime read. It has been nominated for this year's International Dagger Award, and at the award's website, the judges have noted that "Crime fiction that makes you chuckle is rare and this is an exceptional example of the species." There's enough satire here to satisfy anyone's  snarky and sardonic side, a bit of underworld darkness, and I would most definitely recommend it.  And finally, as one cover blurb notes:
Benaquista's story explores what would happen if, say, the Soprano family were to move to Normandy...
and I'd say that's about hit the nail on the head.

I do hope his other books are a bit more crime oriented, however, because I've got a stack of them sitting here waiting to be read.

 crime fiction from France

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