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Reviews for Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista
'What is the one occupation you should not pursue when you are an ex-Mafia boss living in hiding under the FBI's Witness Protection Program? Autobiographer, perhaps? That is just what Fred Blake (real name Giovanni Manzoni) decides to become when he and his family are relocated to the small town of Cholong-sur-Avre in Normandy. Having spent decades frightening, torturing and killing people, and managing his dedicated team of henchmen, Fred decides it is time to tell the truth about his career as a mob leader in the "wise-guy paradise" of New Jersey, his former home and dominion.
Opening with this somewhat improbable undertaking by the family capo, Tonino Benacquista's novel, Badfellas, sets off along several far-fetched plot lines. Blake's son Warren runs scams at his school like a young Corleone; his sister Belle, who is described throughout in strangely reverent but slightly pornographic terms, dominates her peer group through sheer beauty and charisma; not to be overshadowed, their mother, Blake's wife Maggie, burns down the local store when its manager casts aspersions on her American nationality.
The middle of the book focuses on the increasing tension between Fred - who is, after all, responsible for the Blakes' outcast status - and the rest of the family. They don't take his new vocation as an author seriously, and are growing increasingly frustrated at having to live anonymously. Two FBI agents are posted in the house opposite, watching their every move, ostensibly to protect them. In spite of this expert surveillance, Fred manages to escape one night to a local film club in order to give a talk on the Mafia (another rather daft plot twist) and, later on in the novel, he sets out under cover of darkness to dynamite a local factory responsible for polluting the town's waterworks, in an attempt to represent the will of the people.
We can give Benacquista some credit for seeking to make a hero out of a mafioso rat, even though he is taking his cue from the Martin Scorsese film, Goodfellas (1990), in which the mobster Henry Hill describes his epic journey from joining the gang to becoming a snitch, which was in turn based on Nicholas Pileggi's book Wiseguy (1986). But Benacquista's novel is self-consciously an entertainment, and the interesting material he is working with - the true confessions of a (largely unrepentant) gangster, the life of a family who can never come clean, big city American folk adapting to small-town life in France - is at times undermined by a desperate need to make the reader laugh. Explosions going off in Cholong and a denouement in which an army of assassins descend on the local fete might possibly be funny in a film comedy. Benacquista is a good storyteller, with a gift for character and setting, but here he gets caught up in the many twists of his madcap plot and is ultimately unable to write himself out of it.'
- Times Literary Supplement
'Italian-American gangster Giovanni Manzoni, who has broken the mafia's code of silence to testify against his fellow racketeers, has been given a new identity under the FBI's witness protection programme and relocated, together with his family and a retinue of minders, to a small town in Normandy. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and the newly minted "Fred Blake", finding himself frustrated by incompetent plumbers, rude grocers and other blights on the suburban landscape, deals with them in the time-honoured fashion. Inevitably, his cover is blown, and chaos ensues. The latest offering from critically acclaimed French author Benacquista manages to be savagely funny and surprisingly touching, as the protagonist, a man not given to self-reflection, attempts to make sense of his life while dodging the bullets.' - Guardian
'There is something very unusual about the Blake family.
Moving into the quiet town of Cholong-sur-Avre in Normandy under cover of darkness and attempting to keep a decidedly low profile it is not long before local residents are asking questions about them. This American family of four consists of Fred Blake and his wife Maggie and their two teenage children Warren and Belle. Fred Blake is soon telling curious Normans that he is an author who has based himself in the area in order to write a history of the Normandy landings of World War Two. Maggie helps out with local charities and their children enrol in the lycee.
However, Fred Blake is in fact an ex-mafia boss whose real name is Giovanni Manzoni who after snitching on his fellow gangsters is now part of the FBI Witness Protection Programme. Manzoni, unable to reject past behaviour has jeopardised his family's safety several times in America and the FBI have finally tried concealing their identity in Europe. But within days of their arrival strange events are taking place in this sleepy Norman town as variously an uncooperative plumber has both arms mysteriously broken and a rude supermarket manager finds his supermarket burnt down. Through a surreal turn of events imprisoned mafia boss Don Mimino discovers the whereabouts of the Manzoni family and orders a death squad to eliminate them.
The scene is set then for a violent shoot-out in the unlikely environs of the French countryside. Badfellas offers a darkly humorous and knowing take on the Mafia genre that is neither sentimental nor glamorising and is often at pains to point out the seedy and prosaic nature of organised crime.
Author Tonino Benacquista succeeds in creating a new take on the well worn theme of the Mafia family and delivers a pacey, stylish and entertaining story.
Who said family values are dead?' - Crime Time II
'In BADFELLAS we are introduced to an American family, the Blakes: Fred, Maggie, Belle and Warren who are living in a small town in Normandy. The Blakes have been living in France for six years now and the reason why soon becomes clear. Fred Blake was formally Giovanni Manzoni a high ranking member of the New Jersey Mafia, who has turned state's evidence to avoid jail. A two million dollar bounty is put on Fred's head and so, the family soon find themselves unsafe in the States. The FBI then decide that France is a good bet as the Mafia have no links there.
The first part of the book sees the family settling in and each individual reveals their personality including a memorable incident in which Belle takes a tennis racket to two boys who are "trying to get know her better". Fred finds an old typewriter and declares himself a writer and so the incidents of everyday life (for a Mafia family in hiding) are interspersed with extracts from Fred's memoirs which become increasingly important to him as a way of finding himself and to get to the truth.
Inevitably the family's location is revealed to those seeking revenge - through a series of unpredictable events - and the scene is set for a Western-style showdown.
BADFELLAS is a book which you'll read with a smile hovering on your lips nearly all the time. For example when the plumber comes to assess the Blakes' faulty water supply:

Fred had dreaded hearing what he then heard as as the man set eyes on the pipes: a low whistle of horror, which said everything that could be said about the gravity of the situation, the amount of work needed, the irresponsibility of the owners, the danger involved in not taking action, the astronomical sums this action would cost and the general disastrousness of the situation. This low sound had been a part of his training, a moaning blood-curdling whistle, repeated if necessary.

That meeting does not end as you'd might expect...
I really enjoyed BADFELLAS: the getting to know the family and the effect the exile is having on them and their FBI handlers plus Fred's entertaining memoirs, and all the while wondering how it will all end. As well as the Blakes' story there's a underlying theme of people being thwarted by the system despite following the correct procedure - they are ignored by those who should be looking after them.
Despite the occasional violence this is a beguiling read, delightfully translated by Emily Read, and it's a shame to get to the end. It's early days yet but BADFELLAS is, with no doubt, a contender for a place in my top five reads of 2010.' - Eurocrime
'?' '…' 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. - Crime Chronicles
'What would happen if a mafia boss took FBI protection in return for grassing and settled in with his folks in Normandy? A queasily-comic, stylishly-executed romp.' - Independent
'Tonino Benacquista is one of France's leading crime writers, but virtually unknown in the UK. Badfellas, translated by Emily Read, may well alter this situation. An American family, the Blake's, move into a villa in a small town in Normandy. The head of the family, Fred, tells the locals he is a writer, researching a book on the Allied landings. But 'Fred' is hiding a dark past. He is actually Giovanni Manzoni, an ex-Mafia boss whose testimony years before resulted in a life sentence being passed on Don Mimimo, the Capo di tutti I Capi, or boss of bosses, of all the American Mafia 'families'. After the trial the Blake's - Fred, his wife Maggie and their two children, Belle and Warren - had been relocated to France on the Witness Protection Programme, under the constant supervision of three shadowy FBI agents, who periodically move the family as and when their cover is on the point of being compromised. Life doesn't seem too bad as they set about the task of integrating into the everyday life of Cholong-sur-Avre That is until Warren's seemingly innocuous contribution to his school magazine sets off a chain of events which leads to the US and back again to France, with catastrophic results. Needless to say what follows will alter life for the Blake family and the town of Cholong forever. Although sometimes violent the book also has its fair share of black humour and will no doubt appeal to fans of the cult TV series The Sopranos.' - Independent Catholic News
'Times selects Badfellas as one best crime novels for this summer
Tonino Benacquista, well known in France as a novelist and scriptwriter for films and television, has successfully taken to writing intelligent thrillers. Badfellas opens with a small town in Normandy acquiring new residents, a nice American couple with two children; the father, Fred Blake, is writing a book on the D-Day landings. Except that he's really a Mafia big-deal called Manzoni who turned state's evidence against his colleagues and is on the run, under the protection of the FBI's not always effective witness protection scheme. His former criminal partners, are, of course, anxious to kill him. It's hardly an original formula, but Benacquista fills it with charm and humour. The scenes between the Blake family and their puzzled new French neighbours are funny but the book never loses its essence as a sharp vengeance thriller.'
- Times
'Under cover of darkness, an American family moves into a villa in Normandy. Fred Blake tells everyone he is writing a history of the Allied landings. In fact, he is Giovanni Manzoni, a former Mafia boss who grassed on his colleagues and is now in the FBI witness protection programme. Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista (£8.99, Bitter Lemon) is a terrific, boisterous and hilarious black comedy which will inevitably draw comparisons with hit TV series The Sopranos. This is a strangely likeable family, considering the awful things that happen to people who cross them. The manager of the local supermarket insults Maggie behind her back and later that afternoon his shop burns down. A plumber who angers Fred with delays and exorbitant estimates falls down the stairs and breaks his arms. Even the young son, Warren, starts a gang at school to intimidate the bullies. The Manzonis are joined in their French village by the FBI team assigned to protect them. And when an unbelievable and farcical coincidence blows Fred's cover, he is able to return to the violent life he misses as he saves his family from the Mafia gunmen sent to silence them forever. And we end up cheering him on. It's easy to see this being turned into a film - it's violent, pacy and full of detail of everyday, humdrum lives, interspersed with the extraordinary. If you like Carl Hiaasen and Janet Evanovich, you'll love this. The best comedy thriller I've read in the past year.' - Newham Recorder
Guardian top 10 crime novels in translation includes "Badfellas": ‘From the quiet and domestic to the suburban gone crazy. A family of mafia informers from New Jersey is given a new life in small-town France. They try to fit in: Fred decides to become a writer, his wife takes up charity work and the kids do what they can to survive in their new schools, but they're never quite part of the respectable community. Add to the mix FBI officers watching over them, former mafia associates desperate for revenge and you have a rollicking black comedy.' - Guardian
'There's a new family in the small French town of Cholong-sur-Avre. The father, Fred Blake, says he's there to write a history of the Allied landings in Normandy. His wife Maggie throws herself into all the local good causes. And children Warren and Belle start to make their own waves at school.
Except this American family isn't who they say they are. For Fred is better known as Giovanni Manzoni, a Mafia boss who grassed on his colleagues, and who is now being shifted around France at some speed by the FBI witness protection scheme to keep him safe from the hefty bounty on his head.
The snag is, Fred's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and also seems incapable of living a low-key and quiet life… And young Warren looks like being a chip off the old block, if ever there was one, with the protection racket he's set up at school. You also wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of the womenfolk either, as Maggie demonstrates her own methods for dealing with racist supermarket managers, and Belle sees off lecherous teenagers in some style.
BADFELLAS is Sopranos Goes to Europe, although it's the version you can probably show your maiden aunt. There's not a "you fat fuck!" in sight, and you won't be reading this book through your fingers.
Tonino Benacquista - born in France of Italian parents - uses humour and satire, rather than gross-out, to get his message across. BADFELLAS is exuberant and larger than life, helped by Emily Read's sprightly translation, but with an underlying spine of sadness and steel to it.
There's no glorying of crime from Benacquista - he hammers his points home with black humour (just once or twice a touch heavy-handedly). But there are a host of stick-in-the-mind classic scenes, including Fred's encounter with a plumber, and his guest appearance at the town's film society.
BADFELLAS is a real romp, even if the ending turns into something out of a comic book. You've got to love a book whose front cover has a 'don't mess with me' pooch on the front and a note from the publishers which says: "The names of the characters depicted in this work have been changed to protect their identity. Similarly, the picture of the dog on the cover is not that of the Australian Cattle Dog Malavita who is currently at large.' - Reviewingtheevidence
'Imagine the FBI's witness-protection programme moving the Soprano family to Normandy, France. There are many telling and humorous culture-clash vignettes about the ways in which each family member "fits in, " using their extensive New Jersey mob experience. A lightly tripping book on dark themes. I find it impossible to find humour in violence and usually do not like mob books, but this author pulls it off impeccably with his affectionate, knowing yet satirical perspective.' - Mysterious Matters
'As it says on the cover, 'imagine the FBI's witness-protection programme moving the Soprano family to Normandy' - and for once, that's a fair summary of the book. Ex-player Giovanni Manzoni, who has testified against and brought down the Newark Mafia, has been given a new identity as 'Fred Blake'. He and his family have been relocated to a house in France. How will they cope? The Manzoni family exerts the same compulsive grip as the Sopranos - a fabulous blend of outrageous dark humour mixed with believable, if exaggerated, violence. Giovanni can no more be kept in rural idleness than could Tony Soprano - and neither can his family, each of whom 'breaks out' in a different way. For their idyll cannot last. An FBI team watches the house from across the road, a restless mastiff lies cooped up in the cellar, and one day, surely, the Newark Mafia will track them down. Benacquista is faultless in this book. So, please, imagine it's not me but Giovanni who is recommending you to buy the book. Don't hesitate. Don't even think about it. This is an offer you really should not refuse.' - Crime Time
'The names of the characters depicted in this work have been changed to protect their identity. Similarly, the picture of the dog on the cover is not that of the Australian Cattle Dog Malavita who is currently at large ". This is not your ordinary publisher's introductory note, and indeed, Badfellas is not your ordinary novel.
I don't think it is giving anything away if I quote the front-cover description, "imagine the FBI's witness-protection programme moving the Soprano family to Normandy... ", for anyone who has watched the TV series The Sopranos will be instantly familiar with the family whose story is described in Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake, together with their daughter Belle and son Warren, move into a house in Normandy in the dead of night. The normal processes of starting a life in a new town begins: Belle and Warren attend the local school; Maggie busies herself turning the house into a home and looks around for suitable charity work; Fred does not seem to have anything to do but he discovers an old typewriter on the veranda and shuts himself away each day to write his memoirs; and Malavita the dog finds a warm place to sleep in the basement.
Simultaneously with the opening of the novel, however, we learn that Fred is in fact Giovanni Manzoni, a Mafia boss from Newark, New Jersey. He has given evidence against many of his fellow-criminals in a spectacular series of court cases in the USA, resulting in (the authorities hope and believe) the breaking of the cartel of families that control illegal activity in the state. In exchange for his testimony, Manzoni and his family have been promised witness protection - which is just as well, given the $20 million that is the Mafia's reward to anyone who can kill him.
It is impossible not to be reminded constantly of the Sopranos as we read about the Manzonis as they settle in to small-town French life, with many telling and humorous culture-clash vignettes about the ways in which each family member "fits in ", using their extensive Newark experience. One such moment is when Fred is invited to the local film society to lead a discussion of an innocuous American film. Unfortunately, the supplier mixes up the reels, and the group ends up watching Scorsese's Goodfellas, instead. The subsequent question-and-answer session led by Fred, in the increasingly apoplectic presence of his FBI minder, is very funny. Even more brilliant is the story of the school magazine and its journey through a disparate set of readers- eventually, after a series of coincidences, bringing the novel to a truly explosive climax.
There are many acute, witty observations woven throughout this novel, which is confidently written and tightly plotted. Although I could not get the Soprano family out of my head when reading about the Manzonis, I very much enjoyed making their acquaintance. The interplay between Maggie (real name Livia!) and the FBI agents who watch over them is quite touching, and Fred's frustration at getting to the bottom of why the water supply is contaminated, and his solution, is hard not to sympathise with.
Other than Fred, the characterisation in the novel is rather slim, providing tantalising hints rather than rounded development. But this book makes many telling points with a deft touch. In describing the prisoners at Riker Island, for example: "Other inmates studied with the sole aim of gaining good conduct points and achieving parole, which could knock ten or fifteen years off a sentence. Some of the more determined inmates had managed to reduce their sentences from a hundred and sixty to a hundred and fifty years. " And a section from Fred's memoirs: "Me, regret anything about my life? If it was all to do again, I'd do everything - EVERYTHING - the same, just avoiding a couple of traps at the end. "
Badfellas is a lightly tripping book on dark themes - superbly translated by Emily Read. I find it impossible to find humour in violence and usually do not like mob books (or movies), but this author pulls it off impeccably with his affectionate, knowing yet satirical perspective.' - Petrona
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