Death in Springtime

By Magdalen Nabb

The third Marshall Guarnacci mystery I’ve read, and coincidentally also the third Magdalen Nabb has written. It shows a marked progress from the first book (Death of an Englishman), and is, in itself, a worthy precursor of The Marshall and the Madwoman. The same meticulous attention to people, and again a very, very tight plot.

  • Author: Magdalen Nabb
  • Publisher: Fontana
  • Published: 1984 (1983)
  • ISBN: 0-00-617032-3
  • Pages: 155

Now I’ve got about ten reviews — or rather book notices, since reviews ought to be a bit more full-bodied, and more critical — I begin to see where I should work on Squishdot to provide better support. Indexes by author, for instance, and better search functions. No doubt I’ll get the itch one of these days, and hack it in.

But that’s all irrelevant. Death in Springtime is very good. The plot is
as tight as a pair of tights. Young Bacci is back, and again falls in love with a foreign girl — resulting in some very, very touching scenes. There is a Substitute Prosecutor who is a very memorable character. And again there is a crime that is peculiar to the setting, and that is handled with complete confidence.

Maybe there’s not quite enough of our beloved Marshall in this book; but that’s understandable since he’s very concerned about poor Cipolla, the murderer — no he isn’t a murderer, he’s just killed somebody — in book one.

And in this book Nabb does it again: the person who will really pay for the crime is almost innocent. To misquote Sayers, altogether, poignant is the mot juste.

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.

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.