Murder, but only in the best possible taste: The Art of Killing Well
Marco Malvadi’s mix of history, cookery and whodunnit is a recipe for a great summer read
Dining Out: Fat and Thin, painted by Enrico della Leonessa in 1899. Photograph: Italian National Gallery of Modern Art/Deagostini/Getty
The Art of Killing Well
Years of travelling around Italy collecting culinary knowledge has made a cookery writer fat, if also famous and very wise. His reputation earns him an invitation to stay at the castle of the seventh Barone di Roccapendente, high in the Tuscan hills.
Pellegrino Artusi, merchant by profession, foodie by instinct, happily accepts and sets off, his two cats reclining in their straw basket. Artusi is looking forward to indulging his passions: good food and luxury. But, above all, he is a student of human nature and finds that even a casual glance can prove most informative.
There is a second guest, a photographer, who has already arrived and has been met with “polite indifference”. Neither he nor Artusi is treated with deference. The family’s snobbery appears to have filtered down through the household.
The Italian writer Marco Malvaldi sets the scene: “In the early afternoon, the sun’s rays hit the castle, its gardens and its surrounding estate mercilessly, forcing anyone who was outside to bear a murderous heat made all the more pitiless by the humidity of the nearby marshes. But at that time, the baron and his family tended to be inside the castle, whose rooms with their vaulted ceilings were pleasantly, reassuringly cool, which helped their occupants to concentrate on card games, reading and complicated embroidery.” The workers are left outside under an unforgiving sun, but then “they were accustomed to the heat”.
Sniping charactersHaving established the class divide, Malvaldi introduces his wonderful sniping, bickering characters, beginning with Lapo, the more appalling of the baron’s idle sons. Disputing that the lowly Artusi would even know how to use a bath, Lapo is secure in his swaggering delusions. His way of walking “screamed to the world”, we are told. “Slow and aloof, his thumbs in his trouser pockets, his eyes moving from side to side. New clothes, English walking boots. Lapo’s vision of the way to behave with other human beings was simple and uncomplicated. If she was a woman and beautiful, you went to bed with her. If she was a woman and ugly, you went to bed with a different woman. If he was a man, you went to the brothel together . . .”
Gaddo, the other son, has very different fantasies. He considers himself a poet and has already dispatched a selection of his work “to the Great Poet”, Giosuè Carducci. Naturally when his father had told him a major man of letters was about to visit, he had assumed it was a poet, or at least a novelist, not a cookery writer. The baron has a third child, a daughter, Cecilia, who is quiet and modest, favouring a dress “that was a cross between a monk’s habit and a grain silo”. She is clever and skilled at first aid, and, as the ingeniously squalid plot thickens, she emerges as a worthy foil to Artusi.
The baron’s ancient mother is confined to a wheelchair and is very astute. Also on hand are aged spinster sisters desperate for a husband. Then there is the family butler, Teodoro, a resourceful individual harbouring secrets of his own.
Taste of the divineDinner is served in the Olympus Room, beneath a splendid ceiling featuring classical gods at play. Artusi savours the food as if taking part in a religious ceremony. It is a brilliant set piece. During the meal Artusi, attempting to fill “the embarrassed silence that descends when people do not know each other well”, describes Sherlock Holmes without ever naming the Conan Doyle character as an eccentric and “prone to all kinds of excesses to escape boredom. Morphine, opium and suchlike . . .”
Gaddo shows no mercy towards the guest and shrieks: “Third-rate literature made to satisfy the tastes of coarse people. Corpses, sensational events, half-naked women and other obscenities. Fit only for servant girls or merchants.” Many of the exchanges are hilarious. Everyone is on edge, at war with his fellow, and things become much worse with the discovery of a dead body. “A real murder. It was almost unbelievable.”
Into the chaos arrive a doctor and a police inspector. The policeman detests the doctor, “because every time the inspector was out walking with his daughter and met the doctor, the doctor invariably kissed her hand in the most brazenly lecherous manner imaginable. More than once the inspector had been on the verge of cutting short his greeting by thrashing him with his stick.”
Adding to all of this are the diary entries of Artusi: “To think that only yesterday, arriving at this manor, I imagined peace and quiet, would be to admit I was an idiot . . . the dead man did not have the good sense to pass into the other life on his own account, but was reduced to a cadaver by someone else.”
Someone has administered poison. Clues abound in a chamber pot. There is a second attack, this time a mere shooting that leaves the victim wounded. Thanks to the presence of the photographer, the culprit, a distraught female, is identified and the inspector sends his assistant off in pursuit. Eventually the inspector glimpses the chase across the fields below the castle; the policeman, not surprisingly, is losing ground on the would-be assassin, “given that Ferretti [the policeman] was about fifty years of age and weighed some hundred kilos and cross-country running was not his speciality”.
Throughout the narrative there are sly authorial asides consolidating the sheer panache of the characterisation, particularly that of Artusi, who untangles a story tainted by debt, greed and betrayal which shifts and shimmies with impressive energy.
Best known for his BarLume (bar light) crime novel series, the first of which, Game for Five (2007), came out in English earlier this year, Malvaldi has a lightness of touch that traverses language and translation. The Art of Killing Well never takes itself too seriously and is a visually rich, witty variation of the big-house-murder theme, displaying shades of Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park (2001), as well as multiple diversions.
It was initially published in Italy in 2011 and, unlike Malvaldi’s crime series, is a period work, set in 1895. The year is significant; various references to the politics of the time are casually, although deliberately, alluded to, and this heightens the fun.
Included among the historical events of 1895 is the publication of the second edition of the real-life Artusi’s culinary classic Science in the Kitchen and The Art of Eating Well – hence the inspiration for the title of the English-language edition.
Considering Malvaldi’s attention to historical detail – there is even a walk-on part for the Tuscan poet Giosuè Carducci (1835- 1907), the first Italian to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature – it is strange that Malvaldi would choose to have the baron’s daughter reading aloud from Austro-Hungarian Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb, as that novel was not published until 1938. Adding to that anachronism is the poor rendering of Roth’s work from the German, particularly as Howard Curtis’s adroit translation of Malvaldi’s Italian is so poised.
It is but a minor quibble. This is a very stylish book, ironic and fast-moving, a novel with which to have fun. Anyone seeking the definitive summer read, complete with several recipes, needs look no farther.