Review: Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista

Badfellas is the fourth of six novels shortlisted for the 2010 Crime Writers’ Association award for crime fiction translated into English that I aim to read before winners are announced next month.

Badfellas asks readers to imagine that the FBI’s witness protection programme has moved the Soprano family to Normandy. Having only ever watched three-quarters of an episode of the tv show that everyone but me loves I couldn’t quite manage that but I got the general idea. Giovanni Manzoni was a major Mafia boss who snitched on just about everyone in his organisation, ensuring many of them would be incarcerated for decades. What’s left of the Mafia are determined to kill him (and if honour isn’t reason enough there’s a $20million reward on offer) and the FBI is just as determined to keep him alive so that others will be tempted to become snitches. Manzoni and his family have been moved several times for their protection and as this book opens they are now known as the Blake family and are settling in the small town of Cholong-sur-Avre in France.

Given I generally avoid books and movies featuring mafia/organised crime as a central plot element I’m sure I missed loads of references to other works on this theme though even I picked up a few. But even without this intimate knowledge I could appreciate the satire and dark humour of Badfellas which is due to clever, quite sparse writing and an excellent translation by Emily Read. I especially liked the entire sections of the book which have little to do with things-Mafia, such as the parallels drawn between the present-day circumstances in the Region and Normandy’s WWII ‘invasion’ by Americans which are very amusingly done. There’s also a brilliant passage describing how the presence of the Blake/Manzoni family in France finally gets back to the head of the Cosa Nostra in his New York prison cell that’s almost worth the price of the book alone.

For me the most interesting aspect of the novel was the depiction of the impact of the exile on all the characters, including the repugnant Fred/Giovanni. In some ways he is the most affected, having lost his status and his raison d’être, but I couldn’t summon an ounce of sympathy for him and in fact his general attitude still makes me cranky enough that I shan’t talk about him any more. Maggie, whose real name is Livia, is his wife and she is also deeply affected by the exile. She misses her friends and family, but also feels such guilt over her circumstances and the part she played in her husband’s actions that she develops an almost unstoppable zeal for doing good to redeem herself. She cooks wonderful food for the poor FBI agents who assigned as their guardians because they too have to live away from their families for long periods of time and she becomes heavily involved in charitable pursuits in the town. Their two children Belle and Warren are also deeply affected by their father’s actions, though in Warren’s case it has a particularly surprising result as the 14-year old plots how he will recapture the place in the organisation that his father lost by his cowardly actions.

Overall I loved the writing and the way Badfellas is constructed and would recommend it based on these terrific attributes. But I am, like Norman at Crime Scraps, still a little conflicted about the content of the book. Because although Fred Blake/Giovanni Manzoni is revealed as a repellent human being with no redeeming qualities that I could discern he does, essentially, get away with murder. Repeatedly. And something about that irks me. I can deal with a book that has no morality to it at all, but I struggle just a bit harder to deal with a book which seems to suggest, however subtly, that crime pays. And that hideous, murderous crime pays a villa in the French countryside.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 3.5/5

Translator Emily Read; Publisher Bitter Lemon Press [original edition 2004, this translation 2010]; ISBN 9781904738435; Length 282 pages

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Badfellas has been reviewed at Crime ScrapsEuro Crime and Petrona and, as I mentioned, is one of six novels shortlisted for the 2010 CWA International Dagger award

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7 Responses to Review: Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista

  1. Bernadette – Thanks for this excellent review. I haven’t read this one yet, although it’s on my TBR list. I know what you mean about repugnant characters. A book has to be very well-written in other ways if I’m to forgive the fact that some of the major characters are repugnant. This one has intrigued me since I heard about it, though, and I look forward to seeing what I think of it…

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  2. Maxine says:

    I’m with you and Norman on this one, Benadette. Although the book was funny and charming, it does not sit that easy with me on reflection, either. Still, as you write, a clever, witty novel (and short 😉 ).

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  3. Maxine says:

    Sorry, lost your r == Bernadette.

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