Tuesday, August 30, 2005

emigre Anglos, Italian police, and class


Simenon's novels (not only the great Maigret novels but also his many other works) are not really about crime or mystery: they are really about family drama. And Magdalen Nabb's wonderful Marshall Guarnaccia novels set in Florence are acknowledged (even by Simenon himself) to be in the genre of the French master. Nabb's novels are as melancholy as Simenon's but more sympathetic, and she is a close observer of the changing scene in Florence, while Maigret's Paris is relatively static. But Nabb's books are definitely about family drama, for the most part, along with the drama of a changing city in which those family's are trying to maintain themselves and their workshops--for the people Guarnaccia deals with in his rounds through the streets of the disctrict around the Pitti Palace are often the artisans producing the leather, f urniture, and fashion for which Florence is famous. But Nabb's books may not really be germane to the topic of this blog, for a couple of reasons. As in Simenon, in spite of the often gloomy atmosphere, Nabb's novels are not really noir. Guarnaccia remains too hopeful, even in the face of a decline in the character of his city, as it descends into tourist kitsch. But the working class and lower middle class settings of most of the books do come closer to the concerns of noir than the books of another Anglo emigre living in Italy, Donna Leon (already mentioned earlier in this blog). Leon's novels most often deal with upper class and even ruling class strata--perhaps negatively, in terms of the regard with which Leon and her characters hold those upper classes, but the investigations she portrays are necessarily focused on those segments of society. Guarnaccia's investigations, on the other hand, dwell on the shopkeepers, on the street life, on the outcasts among society. Though moody, foggy Venice, even as portrayed by Leon, would seem to be a better site for noir than modern Florence, Nabb's books are more satisfying in their social history, reaching toward the alternative history that I've already mentioned as one of the touchstones of noir. And in The Innocent, the newest Guarnaccia book, Nabb is clearly reaching for something more literary than a detective novel. Her concerns are for the protagonists of that recurring family drama she usually gazes upon, but in the Innocent she looks in particular at the tensions, the entrapments, the disjunctions in the family. Stolid Guarnaccia remains on the edges of these dramas, just as he does as a Sicilian on the edges of Florentine social structure, and his perspective keeps the family drama from becoming melodramatic. This is pehaps Nabb's most completely satisfying book, noir or not.

2 comments:

Piero1 said...

Just a few corrections: Simenon was Belgian, not French, and, the correct spelling is Baantjer, two a's. Baantjer is an interesting case. The books I've read are not much, but the Dutch TV series based on them gives the two main characters a chance to shine. And Baantjer is phenomenally popular in the Netherlands. The TV show, for example, is named, not for its hero, but for the books' author. And there is even a Baantjer board game that is popular with Dutch children.

Does the site include any discussion of Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen books? They're not noir in the classic American doomed-lives sense, but their sense of resignation to the realities of Italian corruption are at least related to noir. And Dibdin is the only crime writer I know who gives compelling portrait of a country not his own.

Piero1 said...

Just a few corrections: Simenon was Belgian, not French, and, the correct spelling is Baantjer, two a's. Baantjer is an interesting case. The books I've read are not much, but the Dutch TV series based on them gives the two main characters a chance to shine. And Baantjer is phenomenally popular in the Netherlands. The TV show, for example, is named, not for its hero, but for the books' author. And there is even a Baantjer board game that is popular with Dutch children.

Does the site include any discussion of Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen books? They're not noir in the classic American doomed-lives sense, but their sense of resignation to the realities of Italian corruption are at least related to noir. And Dibdin is the only crime writer I know who gives compelling portrait of a country not his own.