The Monster of Florence

By Magdalen Nabb

The most recent Magdalen Nabb I’ve read — though not the most recent, Magdalen Nabb is still writing, and Some Bitter Taste was published in January 2003. The Monster of Florence is the work of a matured author. It’s no longer an easy murder mystery with a cute detective. It’s terrifying.

  • Author: Magdalen Nabb
  • Title: The Monster of Florence
  • Pages: 347
  • Published: 1996
  • Publisher: Collins Crime
  • ISBN: 0-00-232505-5

If you delve through the Fading Memories archives, you will find that I read my first novel by Magdalen Nabb in December 2002. That was Death of an Englishman. By a queer coincidence, that was also the first book Magdalen Nabb wrote.

The Monster of Florence is the fifth I read — a month or so after reading the first. Magdalen Nabb has been writing novels for over twenty years. And it is not for nothing that I wrote ‘novels’ and not ‘detective novels’. The Monster of Florence is still about Marshall Guarnaccia, who still suffers from sunlight. But that shtick is no longer important.

Magdalen Nabb has allowed Guarnaccia to develop in a fully rounded character. A likeable, middle-aged man. No hero, but tenacious. Not smart, but intelligent and sensitive. Someone who doesn’t want a promotion because he’s content with his position. Who loves his wife, who loves his sons, who is someone people tell things too. In this book, it is Guarnaccia’s reaction to the disgusting crime he has to fight, that is paramount. And his reaction to the despicable way the crime is handled.

The backstory for this novel consists of a number of sick-making sex murders committed in Florence between 1968 and 1985: real murders, committed by a real — monster or monsters — other words fail. Murders that apparently have never been solved, perhaps because of the involvement of high-placed persons.

In this book. the Chief Public Prosecutor is going to retire, and he doesn’t want to leave the Case of the Century unsolved, as a particularly disgusting blot on his copybook. So he orders a certain Simonetti to solve the case. Simonetti is determined to solve the case: he has picked a victim, sorry, suspect already. All the team Guarnaccia is part of has to do is prove that this person, a rapist who has raped his daughter, has committed the murders, too. And that turns out to be easy enough. For someone ambitious with few scruples.

I won’t give away more of the plot; I don’t mind spoilers, but you might.

There’s also a nice little sideplot, unconnected to the main plot — at least as far as I can ascertain — about a young boy who inherits a studio and a painting from his father. The only reason this plot is part of the book, I think, is to contrast different styles of abusive fathers.

Like I said, this book is a mature work. It is complicated, deep and terrifying. I didn’t know I still had innocence to lose; but I lost some. There are a number of presumably original, or at least original-sounding, sections from police reports and handbooks, and there were many of those that I simply couldn’t read. I felt I would never be able to see a stretch of countryside or a village again.

On the other hand, Magdalen Nabb is still experimenting with form, I think. Often, different scenes, bits of scene or disjointed thoughts of the Marshall are placed after each other without a clear connecting narrative. The whole book is confusing, but in a way that matches the confusion of the Marshall. I do not claim that I have ‘got’ everything there’s to be ‘got’ — for instance, I’m still not sure who committed which murder. But I don’t care about that.

I cared about Salvatore Guarnaccia hugging his boys when they return from Christmas in Sicily. And I cared about him talking to a woman, a bar girl, who was witness, as a twelve-year old, of the first murder, and who needed the Marshal to talk with. I care about the way Teresa cares about her husband.