Magdalen Nabb II: Death of an Englishman

While we are waiting for people to acquire and peruse The Marshall's Own Case, we can talk briefly about the series.  The first novel  is as good a way to begin as anything .

Vince Cornell pointed out that the entrance of the Marshall is delayed.  It is possible she had not yet thought of making him her hero, and I thought something like that when, some years ago, I read this book.  But I am not so sure now.  The opening telephone call tells us a great deal about Guarnaccia:  the fact that simple people know him and trust him.  Cipolla only wants to speak to the Marshal, because his sister lives nearby and they have met.

The young Bacci is punctilious--a good young man, but lacking the touch of common humanity.  He is a Florentine of good family, whose mother buys tea from an English shop where the English victim shops.  Why isn't the Marshal awakened?  He has the flu.  Reading it for the first time, it all seems accidental, but it isn't.

By the way, a little geography might help.  The marshal's station is on the river side of the Pitti Palace, on the Piazza Pitti, really a section of the Via Guiccardini.  (It is very confusing for travelers to be given addresses in terms of a piazza, which is often the wide spot in a well-known street.)    Borgo Ognissanti is less than three quarters of a mile away, across the river, a 10 minute drive or sixteen minute walk.  As I compute it that would mean a driving speed of a bit more than four miles an hour.  Better to walk, in general, but the marshal is overweight and has light-sensitive eyes.  Via Maggio 58 is only "two steps away," translating "a due passi"-- a three minute walk of 600 feet.  Via Maggio runs at a diagonal to the Via Guiccardini.

Even in the first chapter, Nabb displays her gift for capturing the feeling of Florence in the Oltrarno, the endless conversations about food, the light,, the litter and the splendor.  Ordinarily, I should add "heat" but it is Christmas, and the marshal is short-handed because so many of his boys are from the South, and they are all headed home.  In fact his wife and two boys are already in Siracusa.

When Nabb was writing, Siracusa was pretty down-market, and most of it still is.  Our Calabrese friend Bob Geraci complained about the filth and decay of the mainland downtown, but in the 30+ years since, the ancient center--the island of  Ortygia, reachable by short bridges--has become a mecca for Italian tourists without losing much of its charm.  It still has one of the largest and best markets in all of Italy.  Lunch at the little joints around the market have some of the best fish you will ever eat.

The police doctor tells Guarnaccia to go to bed and the Marshal assures him that Pitti station only handles stolen handbags and the like.  This is a case for officers like the Captain, a very sympathetic character.  As the Captain takes charge of the crime scene, Nabb gives us a counterpoint of technical evidence--a lead seal around the neck of an artifact, the fear of Rome's involvement, the dietary concerns of the porters:

"Can we shift him yet?"  The porters had been hanging around for over an hour and a half.  The floor outside the flat was littered with cigarette ends, and their conversation was becoming desultory.

"With the fillet on it, mind you, and rare.  Nothing with it except a dish of shallots done in plenty of butter, sweet and sour."

"Onions make me ill, I never touch them."

"You can take him up," said the Professor.....


Nabb is particularly adroit in describing the interaction of the two Englishmen from Scotland Yard with their Italian colleagues.  The Chief Inspector is a far cry from Roderick Alleyn or Littlejohn, but we are assured he is a competent cop, and his wise guy assistant, despite his contempt for his boss, is intelligent, perhaps too obviously smart for his own good.  Compared with the Captain, both are boors, and the poor Chief Inspector does not even know how offensive his manners have been.

In my observations of decent Brits and Americans, myself included for the sake of argument, I have to say Nabb is perfectly correct.  Compared with the Brits of course, we Americans come across as pushy and ill-mannered, but the Brits all too often take a rather high and mighty tone with the strutting Dagos they both envy and despise.  For my money, I'll take the Italians every time, no matter whether they are Lombards, Tuscans, Romans, or Sicilians.

Nabb is also very alive to the difference between the Florentines and the Southerners, though I think she can be sometimes a bit hard on the Florentines.  A friend once told me that a professor of his told him, a propos of Florence, that he preferred the Southern Dagos to the Northern Dagos.  Of course, the Florentines are neither, which rather reveals the American professor's contempt, which had blinded him.

Tuscans are renowned for several things--apart from food, wine, and art:  A cruelly sarcastic sense of humor and a fairly coarse manner of speaking that we tend to associate, here in America, with low-class Sicilian Americans.  My friend Eugenio Corti, in his great novel, portrays his hero as offended by the coarse language, blasphemy, and irreligion of central Italians, whom he sharply contrasts with the Lombards.  The one exception is his batman from the Abruzzo, an honest Christian country boy.

Speaking of English characters, Miss White, the spinster who is self-appointed curator of a Walter Savage Landor apartment is priceless.  Landor happens to be one of my favorite 19th century literateurs, whose stock went down some time before the general devaluation of all things Western.  The dotty English lady is portrayed as the Italians see the all too common type, and I remember wondering, as I read it the first time, if it was intended as a cruel self portrait, or, if not exactly a self-portrait, a sketch of how she imagined she struck people.

More to come in this space...






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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

3 Responses

  1. Joshua Smith says:

    I found the direct comparison of the English criminal law system either the Italian system very interesting, and that it plays in how law enforcement officer with some humanity (like the Chief) approaches an investigation. I assume this may be important in subsequent stories?

  2. Vince Cornell says:

    I also found the description of the Italian legal process refreshing – how different from the modern American version which vacillates between “30 armed FBI agents raid your home in the wee hours without any prior warning” and “no-cash bail for repeat violent offenders.” In America I don’t think we’re recognize the “rule of law” if it threw us against a black & white and read us our Miranda Rights.

  3. Gregory Fogg says:

    Mr. Cornell, that’s what Dr. Francis called “anarcho-tyranny”.