The Marshall and the Madwoman

By Magdalen Nabb

I want more! This is the sixth mystery featuring Marshall Guarnaccia of the Pitti station in Florence , and comparison with Death of an Englishman shows Magdalen Nabbs development as an author. The immensely sympathetic characters are still there, but gone is all the fumbling stiltedness that made some scenes in her first book hard to get through.

  • Author: Magdalen Nabb
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Published: 1989
  • ISBN: 0-14-011881-0
  • Pages: 223

I’ve been thinking lately about what it is that makes me read books, hunt out the complete works of authors and so on — not surprising if you’ve just started reviewing fiction. (I’ve been reviewing non-fiction, to be precise, linguistics books for Language for some time.)

My conclusion is this: I read books for the people the author lets me meet. I’m not terribly interested in clever ideas, although they’re a bonus. A tight plot is nice to have, but if the suspense distracts from the human interaction I’d prefer the plot flabbier. And unsympathetic protagonists are a turn -off worse than baby-talk in a woman.

On all counts, Magdalen Nabb is a find (literally — ten books for a handful of Euros), and I wish I had more than he two I have acquired up to now. Even people who conform to usually unpleasant archetypes like the nagging wife, the ambitious young upper class twit with no fixed purpose in life, the lazy fathead, the sobbing soppy girl or the sleezy after-hours gambler are given a sympathetic treatment. But that doesn’t mean that Nabb cannot portray a disgusting villain when needed. She’s not blind to the world’s excrement; she just manages to be sympathetic to ordinary people leading ordinary lives, and reserves her censure for murdering, swindling bastards.

So, without wanting to give anything away about the plot, The Marshall and the Madwoman presents us a sordid little suicide in Florence’s equivalent of Eastend. Except that it isn’t suicide, and the sleepy, weepy Marshall (who now has his wife with him in Florence, and bless him) is aware of that from the moment he sees the body of the madwoman in her empty flat.

The plot is very, very tight, this time. In the end, everything comes together in a very satisfying conclusion. One small point of criticism is the ‘little did he know’ at about one third of the book. On the other hand, the scene at two thirds (p. 150 in my copy) is so very effective that it’s an example for an action scene that just works.

I like the Marshall. I like his wife; I ‘m not going to rest until I’ve acquired Nabb’s complete works.