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Benaquista, Tonino: Badfellas. - Bitter Lemon Press - £ 8.09.

‘?’

‘…’

My, I wish I could write dialogue like that.  The characters in ‘Badfellas’ by Tonino Benaquista are funny and interesting even when they are unable to think of something to say and this happens occasionally because the Mafia family is not always as thoughtful as it should be.  The Blakes, or as they were known when they were not involved in the witness protection programme, the Manzinis, are a bunch of almost eccentrics whose lives evolve in a way that always surprises the reader.  ‘Badfellas’ works as a crazed mix of ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘A Year In Provence’ by Peter Mayle but in that gentle literary memory the exiled writer only struggled with a hammer when he attempted house repairs.  Fred Blake, who is also not without creative ambition, uses his hammer on the body of the local plumber.  Inevitably, such an impulsive nature ensures that the cover so carefully arranged by the FBI will not last.  Fred has only previously found fulfilment through betrayal and vengeance.  This violent but ultimately likeable gangster is so treacherous he is even unable to stay loyal to his own new identity.  Once the Mafia are alerted the tale moves relentlessly to a classic confrontation between Fred, the FBI and the dedicated corporate men of the Mafia. 

The violence, as it is in The Sopranos, is sometimes slapstick and coldblooded but it is mainly believable.  Benaquista is an audacious talent so he takes a couple of risks with his plotting but those who are talented at plotting often do just that.  The book has strong characters although the frustrated father, the mother seeking redemption, the beautiful and talented daughter and the confused, alienated and not always likeable teenage son do evoke the Sopranos.   There is enough, though, that is different to make each member of the family memorable especially as the author takes advantage of the freedom of a novel to explain motivation.  The Blakes/Manzinis may be no more articulate than the Sopranos but a book allows for extra insights and we understand Fred Blake better than we do Tony Soprano.  There is also a dog and, whilst this apathy afflicted canine is no Rin Tin Tin or Lassie, the family pet makes its own unforgettable contribution to what is always an unusual and page turning tale. 

‘Badfellas’ can be enjoyed simply as a comic story about gangsters creating mayhem in a community that is beyond their understanding but the book is actually much more complex than it first appears.  Benaquista is adept at using a story about a family trapped in a witness protection programme to explore various themes such as identity, Proustian partial death and rebirth.  Well, this is a French crime novel and that genre has never lacked ambition.  The allegory, though, is never heavy handed and it does not detract from what is a very entertaining reading experience.  Buy it now and anything else by Tonino Benacquista.  Remember, think of the family.

Howard Jackson