Magdalen Nabb

A few days ago, in the discussion of the Nashville school shootings, I suggested that if people wan't to gain a more serious understanding of the transgender world, they might not do better than to read the seventh of Magdalen Nabb's detective mysteries set in Florence (not South Carolina).  A reader--Mr. Strenk, I believe--asked if he should read another book or two first to get the flavor.  I endorsed the suggestion.  If you have the time, try Death of an Englishman, her first but by no means best novel.

If you want to plunge straight into The Marshall's Own Case, then this little introduction I am providing here might be of some use.  There is not much written about Miss Nabb's life.  She was born Magdalen Nuttal in 1947.  She appears to have got married, born a son, and then divorced, but the vagueness of the story, and I do not intend any ill will to the lady,  sounds like a polite invention.  She moved to Italy with her son in 1975, partly in order to develop her skills as a potter--a craft that features in at least one of her stories.

Her first novel, Death of an Englishman, was published in 1981.  Her improbable hero, Marshall Guarnaccia, she said in an interview, was based on a policeman she had actually met.  Before describing the Marshall, a word about his title is in order.  Italy's law enforcement is a complex affair.  In addition to local and regional police forces, there are in fact three important national forces:  The Polizia di Stato, the Guardia di Finanza (who can be seen pointing their automatic weapons at rich tourists from whom they demand receipts and proof of tax paid), and the Carabinieri.

The Carabinieri--the riflemen--used to be  part of the army (before being made a separate branch of the military) and even now function as military police in addition to the ordinary duties of civilian law enforcement.  They are particularly conspicuous in demonstrations, riots, and motorcades, but do a great deal of routine police work.  Don't ask me how their duties overlap with other forces, because I don't know, but if you have read the Commissario Montalbano books, you will recall that Montalbano resents the Carabinieri and regards them as clueless.

One reason for the low esteem in which the Carabinieri are held in some places is the simple fact that the Italian government, virtually from the beginning, has attempted to create an artificial unity in a very divided country by sending Southern Carabinieri north and Northern Carabinieri to the South.  If you recall the wonderful film Seduced and Abandoned, it begins with a northern Carabinieri officer sighing as he stares at a map of Italy. He walks up to the map, covers  Sicily with his hand, and smiles.  Up north they used to tell Carabinieri jokes--there were whole volumes of them. The only one I recall goes:  "Why do the Carabinieri wear striped pants?  So they can find their pockets."  The idea is that Southerners are stupid.  (A more realistic critique of Southern Italians is that they are sly, clever, and excel at getting government jobs as school principals, prosecutors, judges, and bureaucrats.

The structure of the Carabinieri is more or less the same as the Italian army.  The officers--colonels, captains, lieutenants--give the orders, which are carried out by enlisted men who are directly controlled by non-commissioned officers.  The Maresciallo is therefore like an American sergeant, and as everyone who has ever spoken with a non-com in America knows, the sergeants run the army.

Our hero, Marshall Guarnaccia, is thus not really a detective but a cop who follows orders.  In America and even in the UK, class lines are sufficiently fluid to permit or even encourage policemen  of humble background to to climb the ladder.  Such things also happen in Italy, though it seems to me the line between the cultivated and uncultivated classes is more clear-cut, but not in the case of our marshal.

Mr. Strenk wondered if the character of the marshal develops in the course of the novels.  It think we learn more about him and begin to understand the depths of his character, but on a basic level he remains pretty constant:  overweight, uneducated, and a not terribly bright Sicilian in a world of glib and dapper Florentines.  He was not good in school, and he recalls one of his parents telling him he had better join the army.  (I think we know what that means!)  He doubts himself and wonders why his captain ever bothers to consult his opinion.

He is married with two sons.  The family lives in military quarters, though his wife and sons are often back in Syracuse taking care of a relative or simply on vacation.  The wife does not especially like Florence, and Nabb's Florentines don't especially like outsiders.  Florence has often been described by literate Americans as the Boston of Italy, while in fact, it is at least ten thousand times better in every respect.  Still, there is a kind of chilliness to the people there, and Tuscan humor is often cruel.  But if, mutatis mutandis, Florence is something like Boston, then Sicily is perhaps Louisiana.  But, really, these comparisons do not take us very close to reality.

Nabb  told an interviewer once that outsiders could not be accepted in Florence, which partly explained why so many foreigners, however much they admired the city, did not especially like it or its people.   In the NYT obituary, it is suggested, on the basis of a late novel, that she softened her opinion.

As an outsider in Charleston, I never found it difficult to get on with the people I wished to get on with, but I never deluded myself into believing that I was perceived as a local. My father had a friend named Harry, from at most 100 miles from Charleston, where he had been living for 30 years.  One day in a conversation with friends, Harry ventured an opinion about Charleston, and his Charleston friend--from an old family prominent before the War--reproached him:  "What do you know about it?  You're a newcomer here."

As a foreigner, Nabb could never be entirely accepted in Florence, and the English of all people are not the type to accommodate themselves.  In Tuscany, they huddle together in little enclaves as if they were living 150 years ago, drinking tea in India.  I am exaggerating for effect, but I sometimes find them mildly unpleasant.  Even Muriel Spark, who loved Italy and lived with a friend somewhere between Arezzo and Siena--I spent a few days with them but can't recall the name of the nearby village--told me the Italians were cruel because, as she believed, the local farmers had killed her cat, just because it killed the little birds they liked to shoot.  I did not even try to explain how rural hunters would feel.

So Guarnaccia is overweight, but he also has eyes that are very light-sensitive, which means he has to wear dark glasses.  He is not intelligent and anything but intellectual, and he has a lower opinion of himself than others have of him.  Above all it is important to bear in mind that the Marshall is an old-fashioned Catholic, whose formation and faith have made him not only an acute judge of good and evil but also a man of compassion even for people who get caught up in evil. He does not tolerate wickedness, but his great strength is his human understanding.  It is not so much that he (like Bellairs' Littlejohn) is possessed of intuition but that he is a Christian whose compassion enables him to understand the human element.  His captain--an intelligent and hardworking officer-- values his opinion.  Interestingly, there is very little of that stock theme of detective fiction, the conflict between the honest and heroic detective and his corrupt and incompetent superiors.  Guarnaccia's superior officers run the gamut.

The one detective Guarnaccia  slightly resembles is Georges Simenon's Maigret, though he completely lacks Maigret’s intelligence.  Simenon was probably the first reader to realize that Nabb in her first book was the real thing.  She is perhaps his only worthy successor.

One final word, if you have read Donna Leon's novels set in Venice and liked them, you might not like Nabb.  I read one and a half of Leon's books and found them turgid, foolish, improbable, cliched soap operas, completely deficient in understanding either of the Italian character or  of "the fundamental things of life."  As my college friends used to say, "I was bored out of my gourd."  The fact that Leon was a best-seller and Nabb remains fairly obscure to this day is just one more sign--you can fill in the rest of the diatribe!

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

8 Responses

  1. Harry Colin says:

    Looking forward to this book of Nabb’s.

    I also cannot enjoy Donna Leon, but I confess to enjoying the German TV series, albeit only the episodes with Uwe Kockisch as the commissario. I find the other gent borderline unwatchable. A rare occasion when the video version is better than the novel. The sub-title translations also could’ve better, but I suppose that could be said for nearly all such series. As for stock themes, Brunetti’s superior moves into the ridiculous category; he is a bumbling boot-licker lacking all subtlety or reality.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Several people have told me they like the TV series. The Harry Potter movies, which I don’t like, seem to me much better than the novels. Cheap fiction sometimes does turn out better when put in the hands of a competent director.

  3. Vince Cornell says:

    I did find an audiobook of “Death of an Englishman” on Audible that was, I thought, competently read (I can’t vouch for any of the accents, my ear being not very well formed, but at least it wasn’t a dry reading). I finished it and am moving on to the “Marshals’ Own Case.”

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Vince, why not share some of your impressions of “Death of an Englishman”?

  5. Vince Cornell says:

    I enjoyed how the Marshal was left in the background for most of the story, so that, while the professional and competent captain and earnest Carabinieri Bacci do what comes across as a decent job of investigating everything, the Marshal shows them all up by his observation and understanding of people. It didn’t feel forced at all, and while I don’t read many mysteries so I’m probably not familiar with all the conventions, it certainly caught me off guard because I was guilty of the exact same blindness as the captain and Bacci. The world is very well painted, too. Florence was very vivid, and the little scene where the guy is off loading his frames in the wrong place and starts a huge altercation was a great example – especially when everyone comes to their senses at the end when the priest points out there’s a funeral going on and even the traffic cop (I can’t spell the Italian title he had – one down side of an audio book) pitches in to help move the frames quickly. While Mrs. Nabb spent time painting the details of the lower classes, it never felt like she was pandering or overly sentimental.

    I enjoyed it, and am looking forward to the next one. While there’s very little similarity between the two, it did make me think of Chesterton’s Fr. Brown, partly because it was Fr. Brown’s ability to empathize with the criminal that allowed him to figure out how the crimes were committed.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Good insight on Father Brown. I had not connected the two but you are right.

  7. Raymond Olson says:

    Sounds like I’ll have to dip into my least-liked genre again. Thanks, Tom and Vince.

  8. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Ray, I have some vague idea about your tastes, and I think you will like them a good deal.