Monday, October 07, 2013

Florentine Detective Mystery: Magdalen Nabb Excels With THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE

THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE is the final Marshal Guarnaccia investigation that Soho Crime expects to publish; author Magdalen Nabb died in 2007. It is one of the most provocative and unusual mysteries I've read this year, and I highly recommend it for any collection of international mysteries, detective series, and crime fiction.

That said, brace yourself for a reading experience that takes you inside the mind of an aging, humble, and insecure detective who knows he is easily confused and, in his wife's absence, handicapped by his inability to cope with simple tasks like making sure he has enough to eat, or laundering his clothes, or -- most essential for an investigator of serial murder -- discharging the disturbing images from his work, in order to sleep. In fact, Marshal Guarnaccia is plagued by nightmares and the sense of having half seen a significant clue or connection. And when he is forced to stay in Florence over the Christmas holidays, while his wife Teresa and his sons go to Sicily for the annual visit with both his and her relatives there, the Marshal's insecurities and night disturbances mount up in proportion to the twisted psychology of the suspects around him. And then, of course, there are the twists and manipulations of the politically prominent detective leading the task force to which he's been assigned.

That assignment, to a group trying to round up evidence to imprison the main suspect in a decades-long series of murders of couples in their cars after lovemaking, frightens the Marshal with its irrationality and uncertainties. Why should he be given standing on a high-profile case? As he tells Teresa, "I've never been on an important case. The only case I ever solved was when that poor creature Cipolla shot that Englishman. And he only did it by accident and after that he was just hanging around waiting for me to arrest him."

What the Marshal does have, though, is both integrity and an enormous sense of responsibility, especially to young men suffering injustice. Even as he struggles to catch up with reading and digesting the copious files of the case against the Suspect -- files that seem to have been edited to enforce a particular conclusion -- he's trying to help a young friend who's inherited a piece of art that may be a forgery.  And then the contortions of the task force, and the probability of injustice, take the Marshal exactly where he knows he shouldn't go: into re-investigating the murder cases, going to the scenes himself, and questioning some of the witnesses and possible other suspects.

What Nabb does that feels particularly disturbing is spin the Marshal's thoughts and efforts within his personal crisis of faith in himself, his aging thought processes, his "man-lost-without-his-wife" handicaps -- and take the reader into the mists of confusion and fear. And all this in Florence, Italy, far from the despair-filled settings of Scandinavian noir!

THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE is not noir, anyway; hope, love, and friendship glimmer in it unexpectedly and sweetly, like carefully shielded candles in a storm. By the end of this satisfyingly thick and rich mystery, I recognized that I was also grieving: for the loss of Nabb, and of her struggling yet persistent and committed and deeply humane Marshal Guarnaccia.

A note for those who follow European crime: This book is indeed inspired by seven double homicides in the area around Florence from 1968 to 1985. What Nabb does with that inspiration, however, is intended as fiction -- fiction well worth reading.

And here are the preceding Marshal Guarnaccia titles , from oldest to newest (not necessary to read the first, but you may want to gather them later):
Death of a Dutchman
Death of an Englishman

Death in Springtime
Death in Autumn
The Marshal and the Murderer
The Marshal and the Madwoman
The Marshal's Own Case
The Marshal Makes His Report
The Marshal at the Villa Torrini
Some Bitter Taste
Property of Blood
The Innocent

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