Death of an Englishman

By Magdalen Nabb

“It’s just a complaint I have, an allergy. It’s the sunshine starts it off.” If you can stand reading this remark between five and perhaps ten times, then you might very well like this book. I did, the remark did get a payoff, but I’m not unreservedly enthousiastic about this book.

A mystery novel set in Florence, with a marshall of the carabinieri (spelling?) in the leading role, it appears to be Magdalen Nabb’s debut novel.

  • Author: Magdalen Nabb
  • Publisher: Collins Crime
  • Published: 1988 (1981)
  • ISBN: 0-00-6167760-4
  • Pages: 203

Let’s start with the things I really liked about this book: lots of sympathetic engaging characters, colour locale in spades (and the certainty that the author knows the locale she’s writing about), an interesting plot and a perfect length.

Things I like rather less: a protagonist with a horrible shtick, a curiously disjointed writing style that sometimes leaves me completely confused about what exactly happened, and — no, no and — that’s it.

It’s Christmas in Florence and the extremely likeable Marshall Guarnaccia has a serious bout of flu. A cadet from the military school, carabiniere Bacci, picks up the phone in the middle of the night, and the book is on its way. Bacci is a very interesting character. Young, inexperienced, ambitious, a very natty dresser, a stickler for proprieties and precision — many an author would have created an insufferable know-it-all-better from this material. But Bacci is anything but insufferable. He’s also eager to learn, eager to help and genuinely enthousiastic about his job. Quite an achievement, so much character in so short a genre novel.

The story unfolds relatively smoothly — except for the occasional stutter or stammer. Sometimes a scene feels as if it has been reconstituted from two scenes hacked to pieces, and sometimes a scene just doesn’t work. There’s a memorable chase somewhere near the end of the book (hope I’m not giving aways spoilers now) that suffers from this defect. The first twenty pages are quite hard to read…

But by the time the Captain (no, not the Marshall!) and Bacci are starting their investigation for real, the book begins to grip. And the final denouement is very touching, without getting sentimental.

I bought another one of the Marshall books together with this one (ten books for two euros…), and I’ll be starting on it right away.

Interesting, by the way, is that a google for Magdalen Nabb gives more German and French results than English hits. Don’t know what to make of that.