I thoroughly enjoyed Magdalen Nabb’s Death of an Englishman, which is a traditional murder mystery set in the beautiful city of Florence. I suspect the setting had a lot to do with my enjoyment (and wishful thinking that I was there now rather than here). It’s strange to think of Florence as a small town, since I’ve only seen it from an outsider’s perspective as a tourist, yet you get a sense reading the novel that Florence is in actuality a small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Nabb lived there from 1975 until her death in 2007 and wrote more than a dozen mysteries featuring Marshal Salvatore Guarnaccia. I believe she based her stories on actual crime cases (however loosely) and was friends with the local marshal as she lived close to the Carabinieri station.
I get the feeling that Nabb must have been testing the waters with Death of an Englishman, as Marshal Guarnaccia takes a back seat for most of the action in this first book. It’s only a few days before Christmas and the Marshal is sick in bed, hoping to recover enough to get on a train south and return to his family in Sicily for the holidays. The Pitti station is usually pretty quiet with only the odd case of purse snatching or some other minor crime to be solved, but when a call comes through about a murder young Carabinieri Bacci is unsure whether to wake the Marshal or begin investigating on his own. Bacci is still a cadet at police school, and while his uniform is always impeccable and he knows textbook procedures, he has no actual experience. Well intentioned as he is, he tends to bumble about. While the Marshal is weak with a fever it falls to the station Captain and Carabinieri Bacci to investigate the murder.
Carabinieri Bacci is confronted with the body of an Englishman when he arrives at a small apartment complex on via Maggio. Mr. Langley-Symthe, a seemingly respectable bachelor who worked for the British embassy and remained in Florence after he retired, is found sprawled on the floor amidst mismatched furniture. Little is known about him, despite the British expatriate community being a tight-knit one, as he kept well to himself. Upon closer inspection, however, there are oddities about the man and how he was living. His apartment is uncared for and covered in a layer of grime and Mr. Langley-Smythe isn’t much neater himself. Most interesting however, is the ancient Roman seal that is found near his body and a safe filled with various foreign currencies. Being a British citizen two detectives from New Scotland Yard are sent to aid in the investigation.
It's always interesting to see how different cultures act and react when thrown together in a situation, and Nabb seems a careful observer. Just as Carabinieri Bacci can speak a little English, Inspector Jeffreys, who's not much older than Bacci, can get by with only a little trouble in Italian. They both know just enough to be wary of each other and curious how the other works. So they set about questioning the residents of the the apartment complex, and a motley crew they are, too. There's the Italian family who lives above with the little daughter who has a precocious but very peculiar fascination with toy guns. She recognizes the sound she heard that woke her. And there is the older British lady who came to Florence for a vacation and stayed but never got around to learning the language. Her apartment is always open as she has a poetry museum in her rooms. She has a view over the courtyard and Langley-Smythe's apartment and is filled with all sorts of interesting information about her neighbors. Everyone is eager to dismiss her as being a little on the batty side, but she's more with it than most give her credit for. It takes the four detectives to do the footwork and questioning, but in the end Guarnaccia comes along and with ease pulls the solution out of the hat.
If the first Marshal Guarnaccia mystery is anything to go by, these will be quick entertaining reads with a puzzle at the heart of the story but also with a good dose of Florentine atmosphere and interesting characters. I'm curious to learn more about the Marshal and wish that Carabinieri Bacci would return, though Guarnaccia and the Captain seem relieved that he'll be going back to school complete his training. A note on Italian police, which I am still working out but a few subtle differences I have gleaned from Andrea Camilleri's novel--Italian Carabinieri are a national police separate from local police. Carabiniere are part of the military and often serve outside their native regions, hence Guarnaccia is from Sicily whereas Inspector Montalbano is a local police officer. And according to the notes in Camilleri's book, the Carabinieri tend to be made fun of and thought less on the ball than local police, but I'll give Marshal Guarnaccia the benefit of the doubt!
There is an interesting series of interviews with Magdalen Nabb here, and the author's website is here. Valerio Varesi's book was not part of my Italian crime reading project (I didn't think I would be getting the book when I made my list), but he fits in nicely anyway. I'll be getting back to Gianrico Carofiglio next, however, and am looking forward to reading more about Marshal Guarnaccia sometime soon as well.