Friday, June 13, 2008

The last Magdalen Nabb

The last Marshall Guarnaccia novel by Magdalen Nabb has recently been posthumously published, and it is with pleasure that I say the book is Nabb at the height of her powers. The Marshall of the melancholy countenance, eyes tearing up in the sun as always, is confronted with what at first seems an ordinary death, the murder of a young mother in her home, perhaps a burglary gone bad--but a crime that the Marshall knows will become complicated, because it has taken place in a wealthy household at the edge of Florence. Wealth and power are always unwelcome complications for the Carabiniere NCO. The crime will present the Marshall with an abundance of problems, indeed, though not what he originally thought. The book's title, Vita Nuova, comes, of course, from Dante. The reference is ironic, since Nabb's book deals with sex rather than love (the topic dealt with in Dante's book), but also direct, in that the Marshall is forced to confront the possibility of embarking on a new way of life. As is usual in the series, the narrative is nearly stream of consciousness, in the third-person but carefully confined to the Marshall's point of view (at least one of Nabb's novels departs from this form, but most adhere to it). This carefully controlled narrative form is perfect for telling stories of Florence's neighborhoods (especially the vicinity of the Marshall's Pitti Palace station), through the sympathetic eyes of an acculturated outsider (the Marshall is Sicilian but has been in Florence for a long time now). His voice, his internal conflits, even his self-deprecating manner with others (and even himself) are a perfect foil for the tourists, bureaucrats, mannered aristocrats, petty criminals, and shopkeepers that populate Nabb's Florence. Through Guarnaccia, Nabb reveals not only the crime (slowly, through his dogged efforts rather than through ratiocination) but the life of the city (beyond the museums and monuments, among the people that live along the narrow streets and up in the surrounding hills). In Vita Nuova, we soon know that the grieving family is not what it originally seemed, and an often cliched plot concerning sex slavery is developed (subtly and at arms length, more through the Marshall's concern for individuals caught up in the plot than through salacious direct narration of events and encounters)--but only at the end are the threads brought together in the Marshall's realization of what really lay behind the murder. As is also usual with Nabb, some elements of the story are not quite settled satisfactorily (though not in the frustrated-by-bureaucracy fashion of Donna Leon's stories), while other elements are ended with the improving lives of some characters. The mood of Nabb's books is often very dark, and the mood of her hero is almost always melancholy (those dark glasses of his seem as much to protect him from society's blunt truths as much as the sun that he is "allergic" to)--but there is always some compensation for him and for the reader in the Marshall's return to the respite of his family life, and the author's portrait of the families disturbed by crimes both horrible and petty. I started reading Nabb's books from a bit of nostalgia for Florence, where I lived for half a year, many years ago, but her books are richly rewarding on their own, both as crime fiction and as a portrait of a unique place, whether you recognize that city from your own experience or only from the author's loving portrait.

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